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We seem to live in a world where stress has been demonized to the point that people seek to avoid it at all costs. And we use the possibility of experiencing stress as an excuse to do nothing — to opt out of society and responsibility.
Here is a list of the top 10 Health Problems Related to Stress as found on WebMD.
- Heart Disease
- Depression and Anxiety
- Gastrointestinal Problems
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Accelerated Aging
- Premature Death
With a list like that one might consider taking tranquilizers or mind-altering drugs and skip reality altogether in the name of health. The reality is that simply living life is stressful, but it’s not always bad stress.
It seems to me that many people have fashioned their lives to avoid stress at all costs. But if we did that, we would be unable to function. We’d never move away from home, start a new job, get married, have a baby, or go on a vacation far away from home.
There is stress that we seek out, like those things mentioned above. We know that those changes are going to be stressful but we deal with them because they are considered “happy” occasions or “fulfilling” opportunities. That kind of stress is often called “good” stress.
What is Good Stress?
“Good stress,” or what psychologists refer to as eustress, is the type of stress generated when we feel excited. Our pulse quickens and our hormones surge, but there is no threat or fear. We feel this type of stress when we ride a roller coaster, compete for a promotion, go on a first date, have good sex, and many more activities that our brain deems exciting or joyful.
Although the above things put stress on the body, it is considered good because you feel confident in your ability to follow through with whatever the challenge is. Because of the confidence, preparation or planning for the life event, your brain allows you to be stimulated by the challenge. It will also make sure your physical and mental resources aren’t expended all at once so that you can sustain the excitement over the time needed.
This good stress is actually necessary for personal growth. From a young age, taking on challenges helps build autonomy and resilience both physically and emotionally. Also, when we step up and confidently take on a challenge we don’t choose — like undergoing surgery and recovery, or avoiding an accident, or ending a relationship — the success of thriving in the face of such a challenge is empowering.
How Bad Stress Can Also Become A Road To Empowerment
For most people, everyday life is not filled with the kind of physical danger our ancestors had to handle — hungry animals, warring tribes, or even the wrath of god(s) that might strike someone with an illness or send bad weather to an entire population of wayward people. Today most of the bad stress that causes chronic health problems are based on perceptions of fear that aren’t physically left threatening.
When the economy is bad, we worry that we may lose a job. When our politicians are acting in ways contrary to our wishes, we perceive threats to our way of life or freedoms. Unplanned changes in employment, where we live, or changing requirements for daily life all become stressors because most people crave routine and predictability.
Though these worries are very real, it is possible to shift how we deal with it and thereby change our experience of stress. We can borrow some of the skills employed for the “good” stress experiences — confidence, preparation, and the knowledge that we’ve persevered and survived in the past.
I disagree with those who say we can turn bad stress into good stress by simply being more optimistic or thinking happy thoughts. I think that trivializes the experience of bad stress and leads to magical thinking like if you keep smiling the world will give you what you need. Instead, I’ve found that having tools to use helps to lessen the impacts of bad stress.
Some Approaches to Stop the Fear and Lessen Stress
When I lost a job at age 55, during the last major recession, there was no amount of skill or transforming my perceptions of the situation that could make me excited about the challenges I was facing. My life was and would be forever changed. The plans I had made for retirement, health care, travel and much more were gone and likely not to be recovered in my lifetime.
In order to stop myself from dwelling in fear and hopelessness, I had to look at how I could prepare, gather knowledge, and find the confidence to move forward. I couldn’t label this as a positive challenge and therefore good stress. However, I did look at my skills in dealing with good stress as well as surviving difficult changes in the past to find a path forward.
- I focused on what I could control instead of what I could not. I could not control the economy or the recession. I could not control the fact that my age and level of experience would keep me out of the jobs I had before because anyone doing hiring was looking for younger and thus less expensive employees.
- I made a list of other times I had been forced into an unwanted change in my life and what I did to survive that experience. Though none of them were job-related the survival skills were similar.
- I reminded myself of my strengths by making a list of them and looking at how those strengths could be used in other professions.
I took a hard look at what resources I had to get by financially and what I had to do, whether I liked it or not — sell a house, downsize, use up my savings, live with a family member for a while.
- I looked at worse case scenarios and remembered a time in my life when I actually lived in a tent in a state park for a year.
- I listed times when I made a big transition in employment despite of a lot of fear and ended up to be a significantly better situation — more along the lines of what brings me meaning and joy.
It is easier to write the above list with that experience well behind me. And simply writing it wasn’t the resolution. It was only the beginning.
The transition took over a year to resolve. Because I live in my head a lot, and that can become a cauldron of fear demons, I find that writing things down helps me to focus and begin to take control of my situation instead of letting it control me.
I have an important caveat here. Because this works for me does not necessarily mean it will work for you. But if you’ve never tried it, you might the next time you face bad stress. I have several friends who struggle with clinical depression and that leaves them physically unable to act to even think of writing a list — though many of them eventually do. The best way out for them is to seek professional help. If not that, then a good friend who knows how to help tackle these fears and put them into perspective.
Self-Care During Big Change is Critical
Because I have a bit of a superwoman complex — the belief I am strong enough to still do everything else while dealing with any kind of big stress — I have to remind myself that big change requires a lot of physical and mental energy.
If I don’t take care of myself I will eventually implode. That means I’ll get sick. Those constant adrenalin and cortisol hormones suppress the immune system. During one particularly challenging time I ended up with Epstein-Barr Virus (mono). I was out of work for eight weeks by doctor’s orders.
Big change uses all my mental coping reserves. This means I need to minimize the demands on me from others. This is hard because I don’t like to admit that I’m having a problem — even to myself. But experience has taught me that if I ignore it, and continue to try to do everything, I will also implode mentally. I will reach a point where I can do nothing well and therefore I am serving no one, least of all myself.
To deal with this I’ve developed a script I use when talking to others about my need to step back from outside commitments like volunteer work or for a while.
“A lot of things are piling up right now and I need to focus on resolving these before I can do anything else. That means for the next [state a time period like a few months or a year] I will be unable to do [state the activity I’m stopping]. I appreciate your understanding during this difficult time.”
I also have a script that helps me address friends and family who tend do rely on me as their personal counselor and problem-solving mirror. Most of the time I don’t mind this and consider it an honor to be that person. But when I’m struggling I need to not take on that task because it takes away from my ability to focus and move forward with my own changes. So, I say something like this:
“Right now I’m dealing with some really gnarly problems and I don’t have the capacity to listen well to other people’s problems until I get this resolved. I hope you can find someone else to help you with this one.”
Notice that in both cases my script doesn’t include an explanation of what is going on in my life. I’ve had to learn that I don’t need to provide an explanation. It is enough just to set the boundary. If I want to share more I can with selected individuals, but I don’t owe it to anyone.
Some people don’t need scripts because they naturally say how they feel and have great boundaries and self-regulation. For me, I find them useful when I’m particularly overwhelmed. In that circumstance, my tendency is to revert to my childhood and young adult foundational teachings. That is the belief that the most important function of a good person is to ensure everyone else’s happiness first. In doing so, I will be able to put my troubles behind me and derive joy from them.
I know, intellectually, that is not true. I have proof from past experiences that setting boundaries and taking care of myself is what needs to happen so I have the energy to focus and resolve my bad stress. However, it is still hard. I still experience those initial feelings of failure when I can’t simply “buck up” and continue to do everything I‘ve always done. That is where having a script is another tool for me. I don’t have to think of what to say. I already have the words prepared.
Everyone experiences bad stress. Being a good person, a hard worker, well-educated, or even rich doesn’t give you a pass. There is no way to avoid some bad stress. To maintain both physical and mental health, we must develop resilience and have a set of tools that allow us to manage our stress, resolve the issue(s) and move forward.
One way to do that is to look at how we handle good stress and use those same strategies when faced with challenging times. As we practice looking at threats as challenges, we lower the level of stress and manage our energy so it’s not all expended at once.
Eventually, it becomes more automatic and we experience more good stress than bad. Most important is that we gain confidence in our ability to thrive. Thriving in both hard times and good is the best stress reliever of all.