Every health and lifestyle magazine or website contains articles claiming stress is bad for us. They list dozens of ways to manage and relieve stress, from meditation to exercise to eating healthy foods. These are all excellent things to do in our crazy-busy world, especially for people who must focus on taking care of others and often tend to neglect themselves as well.
But stress is not always as bad as these cautionary articles insist. In fact, some stress is actually necessary to keep us going and growing. Our individual responses to the different types and levels of stress we experience can either drain or energize us. How we perceive and process both ongoing and unexpected stressors also intensifies or reduces the impact of stress on our bodies and emotions.
The term stress was first used in the mid-1950s by endocrinologist Dr. Hans Selye in his book "The Stress of Life." Through experiments with lab animals, Selye discovered that we experience stress not only when we hear bad news but also when we receive good news. He differentiated these two types of stressors by calling negative stress "distress" and positive stress "eustress." (The Greek prefix "eu" means well or good).
The idea that we naturally feel stressed by positive experiences, like getting married, having a baby, graduations, promotions, winning awards or races is echoed in the Social Readjustment Ratings Scale devised by medical researchers Holmes and Rahe at The University of Washington. The SRRS ranks the impact of good stress-events as well as bad stressors like death, divorce or job loss.
They also discovered stress is the accumulation of minor plus major changes over a period of time. This gradually increases one's chances of developing stress-related ailments like heart disease, cancer or a weakened immune system. The effects of stress get even stronger when several changes occur in our lives without enough time between them to let us recharge our physical and mental resources.
When dealing with normal life changes, they also found that a single event is rarely stressful enough to cause significant illness especially if you have some control over the situation and view it as a challenge or opportunity instead of a threat.
So stress is not always bad or unhealthy. It can actually keep us from becoming complacent or staying too long in jobs, relationships or environments which are not good for us anymore. When bad stress builds to the "breaking point," it usually forces us to make choices and ultimately change our behavior or environment, most often with positive and healthier results.
Stress is also necessary to keep us moving forward when we're working toward a big goal -- like a creative or business project, or training for big athletic events like marathons or championship games. The stress of working to reach the finish line or complete the project prevents us from slowing down too soon even when we want to. It also helps us build momentum in the early stages to keep us going until we reach the conclusion or finish line.
So this type of controlled positive stress gives us a Competitive Edge via increased focus and momentum. It helps us make choices, take actions and communicate more clearly as we move forward on what researchers call the Performance Stress Curve.
There are two basic ways we manage stress: defensive or offensive. When we're defensive, we subconsciously distort reality by hoping the situation will change without our having to do anything. But this locks us into a state of denial and often intensifies the internal impact of distress, contributing to diseases or depression.
Being offensive, however, means consciously changing and adapting due to stress. It helps us adjust to life changes organically and view things that may at first seem like problems in their proper perspective. We can then reframe these "problems" as opportunities or challenges and begin to take appropriate action.
Offensive ways to manage stress include:
1. Changing the situation whenever possible
2. Increasing our ability to deal with the situation as it is
3. Changing our perception so the situation looks and feels different
4. Changing our behavior as this is where we have the most control
Whenever we feel stressed, it can be useful to first determine whether it's distress or eustress. Then we can decide whether to become offensive and utilize it or change it.
Sometimes just living with the stress energizes our Competitive Edge. But we can also take steps to balance our stress levels so we don't get thrown off-center too easily. This includes sleeping well, eating healthy foods, exercising, meditating &/or focusing on the positive things in our lives.
These simple stress management techniques can also relieve pressure gradually when we're faced with unexpected stress or coping with chronic stress that doesn't go away over a long period of time.
While we all need to learn to live with some level of stress in our infowhelmed 21st century world, being mindful and using stress management techniques, like those noted above, can make having stress positive and empowering instead of negative and draining. This puts us in control of any stressors we encounter rather than letting them stop us from moving forward.
Since the purpose of life, in my belief at least, is to enjoy it no matter what's happening, learning to appreciate stress as useful rather than good or bad empowers every part of our lives!
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