Handling Stress

It’s a good bet that stress has been around since the dawn of time. Or at least since that scene in the garden with the apple and whatnot. However, in today’s society, stress seems more widespread or at least more in our faces. The body and the mind often pay a high price for stress, but not always. Stress can be a good thing if channeled.

I am definitely not an expert on this subject, at least not insofar as the neuroscience of stress is concerned. But who amongst us is not at least somewhat stress-literate? Whether self-inflicted or observed — and probably both — we pretty much get what stress can do to individuals. What we seem to push aside is what stress can do for us.

What is stress?

Stress is how the body responds to various kinds of threats or demands. It is a physical and emotional reaction by an individual’s body to situations viewed as a challenge or a threat. It might be triggered by an unfavorable challenge; for example, a death in one’s family. Or a favorable encounter like a wedding. It can be caused by more inconsequential occurrences; for example, someone cutting you off in traffic, having to wait in a long line, or being on hold for “customer service” for an excessive amount of time. Indeed, the list truly is never-ending — e.g., having to speak in front of a group, doing something that displeases a partner or workmate and dealing with those consequences, staring down a deadline, prepping for an interview, standing at the free-throw line with the game on the line … and all matter of circumstances that exert physical or psychological pressure.

Contrary to popular belief, stress is not predestined to always be a negative nuance that has the potential to push us over the edge. The stress reaction is intended to lift our mind and body into a higher gear to help us solve problems and step up our game. Consequently, not all stress should be avoided. As noted above, it can be caused by positive situations, and even seemingly adverse stress can have positive outcomes.

When you experience stress, your body acts like an alarm system. It generates adrenaline and cortisol hormones that give you a burst of extra energy. This could either bop you upside your head or help you get through temporary periods of anxiety until you can simmer down or ratchet up focus to reach goals and calm the seas.

Stress can be a good thing if we understand how to use it

It’s not supposed to be easy to do some things in life. If goals associated with, for example, relationships, education, business and sports were easy to accomplish, would the pursuit be worthwhile? Would there be high levels of satisfaction? If everyone could cross life’s many finish lines at the same high level of performance, would there be a feel-good accomplishment?

Generally, our body is designed to handle stress, but in small doses. Few people can handle long-term stress and not suffer harsh health consequences. Despite the punitive effects of stress, short-term stress can be helpful. It can boost job performance by increasing vigilance. It can help jog one’s memory to recall predictable concerns that can help us avoid repeating undesirable outcomes. Stress can also help us activate the “been there, done that” confidence boosters we possess. See the wall. Go through the wall because I’ve faced it before and am better prepared this go-round.

This premise doesn’t mean that too much stress is good for you. Quite the contrary. When stress hormones are continually released because you are “stressed out,” studies indicate that they can harm your health in many ways, including the likelihood of letting healthy lifestyle behaviors slip … which, in turn, can lead to heart and other health issues.

The “fight or flight” response is real because your body is hard-wired to give you quick energy to either fight off or run away from a threat. That being acknowledged, stress creates room for personal growth. People who embrace pressure enhance their mindset, which facilitates enhanced performance and fewer negative symptoms … at least compared to those who are on the road to convincing themselves that anxiety is incapacitating. Which, certainly, it can be.

Chronic and acute stress

Chronic stress is the consistent feeling of being overwhelmed for a lengthy period. Acute stress is moderate, short-lived stress — this is the oft-noted “what does not kill you makes you stronger” level of stress. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is the slippery slope to negative impacts on our health.

Chronic stress is a delicate subject. When you notice fatigue, headaches, tension, inattentiveness, irritability, low moods, frequent illnesses, and quick highs and quicker despair in yourself or others in your circle, a watershed moment could be in the offing. Unchecked, stress can unravel into long-term burnout. Shouldering too much stress can have real physiological consequences.

How to transform your response to stress

The concern is not about the stress response but how you channel or engage the response. If it’s possible to reframe the stress response as something beneficial, that’s a positive step. Of course, there will be circumstances where stress responses, particularly in sorrowful, complex and knotty situations, tilt the OMG! meter to calamitous or even potentially ominous points. Even in these situations, the key is to push through and be open to opportunities and learn from them. Acknowledging that such challenges are inherent parts of our life cycle — i.e., nobody goes through life without a healthy dose of grief — is the first step to achieving a level of mental strength and a deeper appreciation for life.

Responding to stress requires that one admits and identifies the pressure. Label the burden you are facing and the potential gravity of the circumstance. Then own it. It’s natural to realize that we worry about things we care about. Owning what stresses us motivates us to calmness … to be optimistic about dealing with “whatever” … and to do something about it. Assessing a situation and taking responsibility for your behavior and outcomes will often provide just enough positive momentum to discover a more palatable way out of a stressful situation.

In today’s society, it can be a challenge to fight off or run away from mounting stress. But you can counter it by changing the way you deal with it. Don’t just consider embracing the following proactive approaches to managing stress and chillin’. PRIORITIZE THEM ABOVE ALL ELSE!

  • First and foremost, take better care of yourself. Eat healthily, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. Physical activity is a proven effective way to deal with stress, depression and general mental health, not to mention its positive outcomes such as weight control and prevention of illness.
  • Maintain a positive approach to life. Unless you truly are the turd in the punchbowl (which is very doubtful), you’ve got this.
  • Set realistic expectations for yourself and for other people.
  • Back off on being bombarded with news stories, especially those filtered through social media. Yeah, yeah, yeah … being informed is important, but constantly hearing details of downer and traumatic events can be upsetting. Why constantly put them front and center in your mind? Disconnect from media for just a little while each day. Will life really change if your phone doesn’t beep every time there is a hiccup in the world? Methinks not … and, assuredly, you can catch up later on the events of the day.  Going off the grid.  What a concept.
  • Knock a few “easier” things off your to-do list, and, for goodness sake, don’t take on even more if you’re feeling the pressure. If possible, delegate.
  • Give yourself a break if you’re feeling the palpitations. Take deep breaths, stretch, meditate, cogitate. Disconnect. Walk around the block. Play with the dog. Go a bit easier on yourself. Whatever you do today, let it be enough.
  • Make time to unwind. Tackle some other activities that you enjoy.
  • Avoid excessive alcohol, tobacco, and substance use.
  • Connect with your community- or faith-based organizations. Volunteer. Giving back can be a wonderful magic elixir for combatting stress and feeling better about yourself.
  • Talk to someone you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling. Share your issues and how you are coping (or not). Usually, a spouse, parent, friend, counselor, doctor, or pastor is within reach. Tap someone who cares.
  • Continue with routine preventive measures (e.g., vaccinations, screenings) recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • Lastly, make every effort to recognize “your” stressors and when you need more help. Psychologists, social workers, professional counselors — and even some bosses — are in virtually every community … to listen and to help. Reach out. Early.

Again, what do I know about stress? I’m indubitably not an expert. In hindsight, I so wish that I had paid attention to the bullets noted above long ago.

I only know what I have personally felt and seen in others, and I don’t believe that stress is a weakness … unless you allow it to control your actions. Yes, sometimes the worst place you can be is in your own head. That being stated, I believe that taking action to live a life that is deserved is arguably the best thing a person can do for themselves. Whether a speedbump or a mountain, stress can be positively channeled. Be aware, be proactive, be positive … and remember that stressed spelled backward is desserts. Coincidence? I think not.

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