Why Stress Can Be Helpful and Harmful
The word “stress” is used a lot these days, and it isn’t too surprising why. People everywhere are more stressed than ever before, with common culprits being work, money, family responsibilities, health concerns, and the economy. So, what is stress? And why do we get it? Is stress always bad or can it have positive benefits too? Here, we take a closer look at the facts about stress, and why it can be both helpful and harmful in our lives.
Can Stress Ever Be Good?
Interestingly, although stress has a bad reputation these days, it can actually be useful. After all, stress is the reason why we’re all still here. Our ancestors used stress to stay alive, using it to their advantage to allow them to procreate and survive so that we can all be here right now.
You may say that the days of hunter-gatherers are long gone, but even in today’s society, we can still find stress useful from time to time. If students didn’t feel stressed about tests and exams, they wouldn’t bother studying or turning up to class. If employees didn’t feel stressed about their project deadline, they could get fired. Stress keeps you accountable for your actions, motivating you, and inspiring you to do better.
So, Is Stress Ever Bad Then?
Sadly, just because stress can be good in some situations doesn’t mean that it’s never bad. Mild stressors can motivate you, but major stressors are often debilitating. Chronic and major stress is taxing on both the body and brain and can lead to mental health problems like depression and anxiety together with physical health problems.
Is Stress Contagious?
Intimately, stress is tied to the social world. Feelings of isolation, loneliness, and social stress take their toll on both the body and brain, ultimately leading to heart disease, anxiety, and depression in the long-run. However, stress needn’t directly affect us to change the function of the brain. Stress is also contagious. Many stressors in our lives aren’t directly ours but apply to our family or friends. Health problems that affect a loved one, relationship problems that affect a friend or family responsibilities all have the same physical and mental health consequences – not only for the sufferer themselves but also for you.
Stress And Perception
Stress is the perceived disconnect that occurs between the situation itself and the resources that we have available to us to help us cope with that situation. Stress is, therefore, either an imagined or real threat that puts additional strain on our resources. A key word to be aware of here is “perceived” since stress may not actually arise from a real threat, but only something that we perceive to be that way.
When you perceive that something is stressful, the brain releases hormones into your bloodstream. Those hormones then change our physical function, our mental experience, and our behavior. When the threat is a real one, those hormones help to save your life, but if that threat is only imaginary, the same hormones flowing through your bloodstream will use up critical energy and cause your body to suffer, leading to physical and psychological problems.
Bad Stress v Good Stress
Eustress, or good stress, is the form of stress we experience if we’re excited about something. The pulse gets faster, hormones begin to surge, but there’s no fear or threat. This form of stress is often experienced if you are going on a date, competing for a promotion at work, or riding a rollercoaster. There are plenty of triggers for eustress, and it helps us to stay excited and feel more alive.
Another form of stress is known as “acute stress”. This comes when you experience a shock or surprise that requires a response. When you experience acute stress, your body’s stress response is triggered, but those triggers may not always be exciting or happy. Usually, we think of acute stress as being “bad stress”. The good news is that acute stress won’t take a major toll on your body and wellness as long as you can find a way of calming down rapidly. Once the specific stressor is dealt with, you need to find a way of quickly returning your body back to its pre-stress state so you can continue to be happy and healthy.
The third form of stress is “chronic stress”. This, too, is bad stress. It happens if you face stressors repeatedly that feel inescapable and take a major toll. An unhappy life at home or in the workplace can induce chronic stress. Normally, we think of this as a serious form of stress, and since the human body hasn’t been designed to cope with chronic stress the result can be negative health consequences, both emotional and physical when chronic stress goes on for extended periods.
Can Good Stress Become Bad Stress?
Although good stress or eustress is seen as a good thing, it can eventually become bad if you experience it too much. This is because the stress response will be triggered either way and when that’s added to chronic stress, the effect is cumulative and harmful. It’s therefore important to stay in turn with your body and acknowledge if you’ve experienced too much stress. While it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get rid of all sources of stress in your life, there are ways of minimizing and avoiding some triggers, and this will make it simpler to cope with the rest.
Can Bad Stress Become Good Stress?
Not all types of bad stress are able to be turned into good stress. However, you can, with practice, change how you perceive some stressors in life, and this shift may change how you experience stress.
The human body reacts strongly when it perceives a threat. Therefore, if you don’t perceive a trigger as a threat, you’ll rarely experience the threat-based stress response. Perceiving something not as a threat but as a challenge may help you to turn the fear you’d normally experience into anticipation, excitement, or resolve.
How can you change your perception? Here are some tips:
- You can focus on the resources available to meet this challenge
- Looking for the possible benefits in a situation
- Remind yourself that you have certain strengths
- Developing a more positive mindset
The more you work at changing your perception of threats into challenges, it’ll become more automatic. This will help you to experience more eustress and less bad stress.
What Symptoms Should I Be Aware Of That Indicate I’m Stressed?
There are several symptoms that are linked to stress. Here are just a few:
- Emotional change – if you are experiencing stress, you will probably experience a number of feelings such as anger, fear, anxiety, frustration, or sadness. Sometimes, those feelings begin to feed on each other, producing physical symptoms that make you feel worse.
- Behavioral change – stressed people often behave differently. They often become inflexible, indecisive, or withdrawn. Insomnia is a common effect, as is tearfulness and irritability. You may notice your sexual habits change and you may develop maladaptive coping strategies such as taking drugs, smoking more, or drinking excess alcohol. Often, stress makes you feel more aggressive or angry and can impact on how we interact with loved ones.
- Body changes – if you’re stressed, you’ll experience physical symptoms too like indigestion, nausea, or headaches. You will probably begin to sweat more, breathe more rapidly, suffer from palpitations, or experience pains and aches. If the stress is short-lived, you’ll rapidly go back to normal, but if stress is experienced repeatedly for prolonged periods, your memory and sleep patterns will probably be affected. You may find your eating habits change and you exercise less. Stress in the long-term has been linked to cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal problems such as stomach ulcers and IBS.
Who Can Experience Stress?
Most people recognize the feelings of stress outlined above, and you will probably have felt overwhelmed at stressed at some point in your life. There are, however, some people have a greater chance of experiencing stress than others. If you have financial insecurity, high levels of debt, experience discrimination or prejudice, or have an ongoing health condition, you will be more at risk.
How Can I Relieve Bad Stress In My Life?
Although stress isn’t always negative, if you’re finding that high levels of going stress in your life are causing you to become unwell, physically or mentally, there are some steps you can take to relieve the problem:
- Recognize that stress is a problem and pinpoint the cause – the first step to tackle stress is to acknowledge you have a problem then connect the emotional and physical signs you’re experiencing with the pressure you’re facing. Don’t overlook physical symptoms like exhaustion, migraines, and tense muscles. Identify the cause of your stress, then take back control by making small steps towards improving things slowly. Make a plan that addresses all of the things you can change. Set yourself realistic expectations and prioritize essential commitments. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try asking others to help you out.
- Review your life – do you regularly take on too much in your life? Could you delegate or outsource tasks to somebody else? Is it possible to do things differently and at a slower pace? Prioritizing things you need to achieve and reorganizing your life is the key to avoiding doing everything simultaneously and piling on the pressure.
- Building more supportive relationships – finding family or friends who can help and advise you is key to managing your stress. Enroll on a course, join a club, or become a volunteer to expand your social network and get you doing something different. It will also help to alter your perspective and can boost your mood.
- Eat more healthily – eating healthily reduces the chance of developing a diet-related disease. Food also affects mood, with feelings of well-being being protected by adding plenty of nutrients into your daily diet.
- Minimize drinking and smoking – it can be tempting to turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms such as drinking alcohol and smoking to cope with stress. However, while they seem to relieve the problem, in fact, they’re usually making it worse since caffeine and alcohol increase anxious feelings. Cutting down on your intake is, therefore, a positive step.
- Exercise more – taking more physical exercise will help you to manage your stress more effectively. Walking or working out provides you with a natural mood boost thanks to the endorphins that are produced when you’re active.
- Taking time out – a good way of reducing stress is simply to practice self-care and relax. Do positive things for yourself and find the right balance between your responsibility to others and your responsibilities to yourself.
- Be more mindful – meditation and mindfulness can be practiced at any time and in any place. It can help you to reduce and manage the effects of anxiety and stress in your life.
- Sleep more – if you’re stressed, you may struggle to sleep. Try reducing your caffeine intake and avoid using screens before bedtime. Write down a to-do list for the following day before bed so you can prioritize and clear your mind before sleeping. If you get more quality sleep, you’ll find that you are better able to cope during the day with the stress you experience.
- Be kind to yourself – most importantly, you need to try to keep things in perspective and be kind to yourself. Find positive things in your life and write a gratitude journal. This will help you to channel your thoughts and emotions in a more positive way.
If stress is overwhelming you, you should seek out professional help. Many people feel that they cannot manage alone with the sheer stress that they experience in their lives on an ongoing basis, so see your doctor who can advise you about possible treatments or refer you to a professional who can offer you CBT, counseling, or other psychosocial interventions. With the right support and help, you can overcome stress, develop better coping strategies, and move onto a happier and healthier lifestyle.
Why not reach out to The Meadowglade in order to see how we can be that support for you?