Stress – not always a bad thing…

Stress - not always a bad thing

As we head into Stress Awareness month this April, many of us will no doubt be reflecting on stress….in our lives and in our workplaces. We may be focussed on reducing or managing stress for our employees. We may be feeling stressed ourselves. But is stress always a bad thing? 

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines stress as: ‘the physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors’. It’s a natural biological reaction that causes changes in nearly every organ in the body and influences how people feel and behave. 

It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that not all stress is bad. One way of looking at this is to divide stress into (positive) eustress and (negative) distress. Today, the word ‘stress’ has often become synonymous with ‘distress’, and we regularly hear about the ‘stress epidemic’ and the negative effects of modern-day living on our overall stress levels. Whilst there is evidence to suggest that this may be true, some stress might in fact be good for us. 

Eustress is a form of stress that leads to a positive response. It is usually associated with feelings of excitement and challenge rather than anxiety or fear. It’s the feeling that a Formula One pit crew experiences as the driver darts into the pit lane for a fresh set of tyres. 

Situations that might create eustress include:

·       Starting a new job

·       Getting married

·       A looming work deadline

·       Public speaking

·       Watching a scary movie

·       Playing a competitive sport

·       Riding a roller coaster 

·       A tough physical workout

·       Novel experiences such as a first date or travelling somewhere new

It is actually important for us to experience positive eustress in our day-to-day lives. It can help us concentrate and focus when we have a challenging task to complete. It can encourage us to try new things or pursue our goals. When we challenge ourselves, eustress makes us feel more confident and motivated. It can also make us more resilient and often healthier. The Yerkes-Dodson law suggests that stress can in fact help us to perform better, up to a certain point. 

Eustress often resembles distress in many ways. It can make your heart beat faster and your stomach churn. You may breathe more rapidly, and your thoughts might race as adrenaline delivers a kick of energy in response to the situation. The difference is how you perceive these physical sensations. Always associating a stress reaction with negativity may actually elevate our stress levels – which is not a good way to manage stress! 

The key is identifying eustress from distress.  Stress can become debilitating if it is chronic (allowing no possibility of recovery) or if it is traumatic. If it starts to take over your life, stress becomes a problem. The key to managing distress is to identify the stressor and develop a healthy way to deal with it. 

Some suggested ways to do this are: 

Learn to recognise the physical signs of stress in your body. Where and when do you feel them most? This could give you a clue as to what’s triggering your stress. 

Note the negative voice in your head that churns over the stressful thoughts.Calling it out and putting it in the third person helps us to recognise and distance ourselves from the thought: “Nicole is feeling stressed by this deadline.” 

Minimise contact with the stressor where you can, whether that’s staying away from your work emails in the evenings, avoiding certain people or taking a break from social media. 

Accept the things you can’t control such as other people’s behaviour. Focus instead on what you can control.

Try some relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises or meditation. Take time to step away from your jumbled thoughts and clear your mind. 

Think about the positive things in your life. Sometimes making a list of things you appreciate, or what’s going well, can help you to focus on the upside. 

Look after yourself. Keep active if you can and eat healthily. This will help your body to cope with stressful situations and bounce back better. I personally find spending time outdoors is a great way to relax and rejuvenate. 

Get some rest. Your body and mind need time to recover from stressful situations, so try to create a good sleep routine and allow yourself to recharge.

Talk to someone. If you are not comfortable with talking to family or friends there are many online or telephone support services available. 

As long as it’s not chronic, traumatic or debilitating, a little stress can be a positive influence. Taking steps to reduce chronic distress and add positive activities to promote good eustress can help us to create a healthier balance and an overall better quality of life.

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