No doubt, you’ve probably experienced times of stress. If you were ever an actor in a play, or getting ready to give a presentation to your co-workers, you probably felt a little nervous. Maybe your heart was pounding, or you felt warmer than usual, or maybe your stomach felt a little upset. But you did it! Once you finished, those feelings went away.
However, you also may have had a more negative experience of stress. The traffic jam on the way to work made you furious, and the phone never stopped ringing at work, and you never had a chance to relax at home because your kids needed you to help them with their homework, and you’re not sure if you can pay your bills this month. You’re losing sleep because you can’t stop worrying and you can’t relax no matter what you do. Day after day of this leaves you feeling constantly stressed out.
Good Stress vs. Bad Stress
A milder form of the stress response is what gives us the focus and energy we need when we face a new challenge, are on a new adventure, are learning something new, or overcoming an obstacle in our lives. This mild form of psychological stress is called eustress.
A good, robust stress response can also help us deal with sudden emergencies, real danger, or temporary hard times that require more of our attention and energy.
However, when our stress response won’t shut off, or is continuously triggered by the demands of daily living, it begins to threaten our health and our quality of life, When we experience these bad forms of stress, we say we are in distress.
Bad Stress Can Damage Our Health
Bad stress is harmful to your health. It increases your chance of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, mental health problems, cancer, and can impair your immune system making you more prone to infections and autoimmune disease. That’s why reducing the stress in your life can pay off big in health gains.
The answer to reducing stress is to understand a bit about how it works.
The Evolution of Stress
Being under stress can feel lousy, but believe it or not, your body is trying its best to help you. It senses that you are under threat, so it’s making your heart pound faster and diverting energy away from your digestion and immune system so that you have enough energy to fight or run away from the impending threat.
However, the trouble is that our bodies evolved to handle short bursts of the stress response – like the type of burst we’d require if we were running from a tiger. Our bodies did not evolve to handle the ongoing chronic stress of modern life (traffic jams, demanding jobs, inflation, constant bad news on television, etc.) We end up in “fight of flight” mode all day long, and sometimes it even keeps us up at night. It’s as if the invisible “tiger” in our lives never stops chasing us. The stress response never turns off.
Managing Stressors vs. Managing the Stress Response
There is a difference between a stressor and the stress response. A stressor is anything that is an actual or perceived threat (like a tiger or an angry boss), while the stress response is your body’s reaction to that threat.
To reduce the stress in our lives we can certainly work to remove identified stressors in our lives. We can change jobs, we can take more vacations, we can reduce demands on our time and patience. But in addition to managing stressors, we can also learn how to reduce or shorten our stress response.
Completing the “Stress Response Cycle”
In their book Burnout, Emily and Amelia Nagoski explain how we can interrupt and reduce prolonged or chronic stress by breaking what they call the “stress cycle.” In their research, they discovered that just as there are factors that trigger a stress response, there are also things we can do that tell our body to turn off the stress response — that everything is now safe and the “tiger” is gone.
Some of the ways we can shut off the stress cycle include purposefully tensing and relaxing all of the muscles in our bodies, regular exercise, deep breathing, reaching out for community, the sensation of bonding with another person, and more. Many of the evidence-based techniques the Nagoskis discovered are as deeply rooted in the same evolutionary programming we have for running away from tigers. After all, if you successfully run from a tiger, what happens? You are welcomed by your village, you can exhale, you relax, you get a hug, you have a nice dinner, you celebrate, you sleep. These are the types of cues that help your body turn off the stress response.
Watch Out – Thoughts can Trigger a Stress Response Too
Another way to turn off the stress response is to watch out thoughts. Do you find yourself thinking about things that make you angry, fearful, or worried? With every negative thought, you could be triggering your stress response, releasing more stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline into your bloodstream. Your body doesn’t know the difference between a real threat or an imagined one. This is one way that negative thoughts can have a direct physical effect on your health.
It’s also why there are great benefits to cultivating a positive mindset of optimism and gratitude. These thoughts and feelings communicate safety to your physical body, and help reduce the amount of stress hormones in your system.
The bottom line is that your body is wired to produce a stress response when you are challenged or even when you think a threat looms around the corner. We can help our body stay balanced by learning better ways of managing the stressors in our lives, and also ways to complete and end the stress response cycle. When we do, we pave the way for better health and well-being.
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About the Author
Olivia Hsu Friedman, LAc, Dipl.OM, DACM, Cert. TCMDerm, is the owner of Amethyst Holistic Skin Solutions and treats Acne, Eczema, Psoriasis, and TSW. Olivia treats patients via video conferencing using only herbal medicine. Olivia is Chair of the Board of Directors of the American Society of Acupuncturists, serves on the Advisory Board of LearnSkin, and is a faculty member of the Chicago Integrative Eczema Group sponsored by the National Eczema Association.