Stress is bad. If you’re like most people, you stress out about having too much stress in your life because you know how terrible stress is for your health. What if we told you that the negative health impacts of stress are actually worse than we thought they were? What if we also told you with one simple trick you can adapt your response to stress and make it your friend?
Imagine for a moment, how different your life would be if instead of worrying about the stress in your life you welcomed it.
Is there a good stress?
You may be asking: how can stress actually be a good thing? The reality is there’s a lot of research on how our bodies are actually built to process stress. Many elements of a stress reaction can be helpful if we understand how to harness them as such. You don’t have to just take our word for it. Watch this Ted Talk on stress where psychologist Kelly McGonigal breaks down how we’re equipped to positively utilize stress in our life.
Why is it good to have some stress?
When we break down the science behind why our body reacts to stress the way it does, we can make mindful decisions about how we process that stress. Remember that every function of your body is designed to help it thrive. Stress is a natural occurrence and therefore our body’s response to it isn’t inherently bad. The way we react to, and augment our stress responses is the core issue. Just as our bodies need rest and recovery from physical stimulus, our minds need support in recovering from stress stimulus.
When utilized correctly, stress can actually be a good thing and provide a lightning rod for change and movement in your life. But first, you need to know how stressed you are before you try to tackle it. We designed a stress and anxiety test so you can assess your current stress and anxiety levels for free.
The Science of Stress
When your body perceives a threat, it goes into “fight or flight” mode and readies all of your systems to help you either fight off an attack or escape the situation. Here’s how your body equips itself for the stressful task or event:
- Your sympathetic nervous system jumps in and your body releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline
- This hormone change triggers your cardiovascular system to pump your heart faster to provide more oxygen to your brain for quick decision making
- Your body calls glucose out of your liver to raise your blood sugar so you have extra energy ready to fuel your muscular responses
- Your muscular system tightens to protect your muscles from injury and to ready them for quick movements
- Your respiratory system makes you breathe faster so you can provide all of your now-overactive systems with enough oxygen
- Your endocrine system releases additional stress hormones
What can extreme stress do to your body?
Your body’s reaction to a stressor calls every single piece of you into readiness for action. Your heart races, you breathe faster, your muscles get tense. Now, it’s easy to see how living your life in this constant state of stress could cause health problems.
Because most of our stressors in our modern lives are things we can’t solve by physically fighting or running away from them, we’ve come to view the stress response as unhelpful and even unhealthy. Sadly in today’s chronically stressful lifestyle many of us have become used to this heightened response that we may not notice the typical signs and symptoms. We become less in tune with our body and don’t even realize when and how stressed we really are in our daily lifestyle.
What are the signs of stress overload?
The signs of stress overload include:
- Low energy
- Tummy and intestinal pain
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
- Frequent illness
- And much more!
Does stress kill you? Is stress really harmful?
Your body’s response to stress is built to keep you alive. Studies have shown that stress is linked to disease and early death. How ironic is it that we’re all worried about dying sooner because of our stress? What if instead of worrying about these physical responses we appreciated them for what they are and focused on how to use them in a positive way? If you’re interested in how to apply this in your life, check out the online program, “Detox Your Mind: The power of Stress Resilience .”
The Positive Side of Stress
Stress research has shown that there are good things about stress. When your brain is flushed with stress hormones it can think more clearly. Your performance, memory, and ability to learn are all increased. Short bursts of stress were also shown to boost your immune system and allow you to make better instinctual decisions.
Your body has its own defenses against the harmful effects of stress. In her Ted Talk on stress McGonigal posits that stress makes you more social because the “cuddle hormone” otherwise known as oxytocin, is actually a stress hormone and an anti-inflammatory all in one.
Benefits of short term stress
Research also shows that oxytocin is the hormone that prompts us to seek out social connections during times of stress. Essentially your body sends oxytocin in to protect your inflamed systems from their stress response and to motivate you to seek out safety in numbers i.e. social connections. So, it can be good to have some stress.
How to Make Stress Your Friend
Stress is a good thing because it’s your body’s way of sending you into “super hero mode.” All of your systems, including your brain, turn up to their maximum capacities to make sure you survive. If you accept and understand those responses for what they are, you can handle them mindfully and utilize this heightened state for your own benefit.
The next time you’re in a situation that makes your palms sweat, try to send gratitude to your body for preparing you for what’s ahead. Be conscious of all the good things stress does for your body. Notice how you’re drawn to connect with people during times of stress and how an adverse situation can create deep social bonds.
Does stress make you stronger?
Stress is not the evil force we make it out to be in Western cultures but it still has a time and a place. Your body isn’t meant to function at the fully “on” level all the time. If there is lack of rest with periods of decreased stress, it can be harmful. So, rather than worrying about being in a stressed out state, if you support your body’s systems in dealing with stress, it will rest and recover all on its own.
Think of stress like a full body workout. It’s great for you and your body will adapt to it and get stronger from it if you allow time for it to recover afterwards.
The Benefits of Adaptogens in Stress Recovery
Adaptogens are herbs that interact with your adrenal glands and help support your body’s response to stress. These plants have been used for centuries in Chinese medicine but just recently began to take off in the Western world.
How do adaptogens help? Different adaptogens can reduce stress responses or help normalize hormone production once a stress response has occurred. The point of adaptogen use isn’t to “cure” stress but rather to support the body in processing that stress. Runners ingest electrolytes after long races to facilitate their body’s rehydration. Adaptogens play a similar role to electrolytes in that they are powerful tools in encouraging our bodies to recover from stress.
Sleeping Off Stress
Cortisol naturally dissipates to a lower level in your body when you sleep. If you can’t fall asleep because you are worried and stressed, your body doesn’t get all of the time it needs to process out the stress hormones you used during the day. This creates a negative cycle where you essentially recycle feelings of stress because your hormones aren’t regulating overnight. You need sleep to regulate your stress response and you can’t sleep if your stress response is irregular.
Sleep deprivation can actually train your body to be slower at bringing your cortisol levels down at night. Remember that cortisol helps keep you alive in a dangerous situation so having too low of an amount in your body when you’re awake and moving around could leave you vulnerable in your body’s eyes. This is why it’s important to establish a healthy sleep pattern when you’re cultivating your body’s stress recovery. If you have trouble falling asleep at night, be patient and consistent while you retrain your body’s rhythm back to its natural state.
Your Mind Is Magic When Processing Stress
Unless you live a highly-dangerous lifestyle, your stress responses are triggered by your perceptions. Presenting a huge budget proposal to your boss or walking your kid up to the soccer field when you’re late for the game trigger stress responses in us even though we aren’t in real physical danger. The primal piece of our brain ties work success and social acceptance to survival needs: the ability to provide and the safety that comes in numbers.
Awareness of when we are in physical danger versus when we’re just in a setting that makes us feel anxious isn’t usually enough to prevent our bodies from triggering our stress response. However, if your response to your stress is to welcome it as a tool preparing you to face the challenges your brain is perceiving, your body’s physical response to the stress will change.
Think of other times when you experience a “rush” of adrenaline. When you get fantastic news, when you see someone you love after a long separation, when you ace the test you’ve been cramming for. Our body’s response to joy and achievement is very similar to that of stress except in these instances our blood vessels stay relaxed, rather than constricting. In her stress Ted Talk McGonigal posits that the only difference between our body’s response to stress versus its response to joy and courage is in how we choose to think about our stress.
Mindful Management of Stress
The practice of meditation teaches you to quiet your mind by first letting go of any anger or frustration over the thoughts running through your head. Rather than fighting to clear your mind of any thoughts, you train your mind’s ability to soften into quiet. When you first begin to practice, your mind races and you must constantly recognize that you’ve lost focus and return to your breath.
The same is true for utilizing stress. Remember that your body doesn’t know the difference between a physical threat and a situational threat. All it knows at its base, instinctual level is that you feel like there’s a potential for danger and it needs to protect you from whatever threat you are perceiving. If you were being chased by a predator you wouldn’t have time to think logically about the situation. You would rely on your body’s instinctual response to run or to fight.
Be patient with learning to make stress your friend. One of the good things about stress is that we encounter it often so there is ample opportunity to practice this. With time, you can retrain your mind and body’s response to stress to be one that powers you through difficult situations in a positive way.
Practicing mindfulness if you aren’t already is a good way to start with stress management. Cultivate the ability to control your thoughts better. In order to harness your stress you have to first be able to recognize when it’s occurring and what’s triggering it. Mindfulness will help you create that awareness of your thoughts.
Using Stress for Growth
Once you’ve honed your ability to recognize the red flags of when your stress response is triggered, you can start to harness stress as a good thing and reap the benefits of short term stress. Since stress aids our memory, our ability to connect with others, and our ability to learn we can do some powerful work with it when we are controlling our approach to stress.
When we start to embrace stress and use it for positive change in our life we can build resilience in all areas of our life. This ability to utilize stress means we can control whether we are in eustress or distress. Many wonder if there is a good stress? Eustress is the type of stress that causes personal growth because we interpret the stressful situation to be a positive one overall. Distress is the negative type of stress mindset that can leave us with chronic fatigue, migraines, and other physical symptoms because it triggers our body to panic and shut down rather than embrace the situation we are in.
Our bodies and minds are incredible. If we work with the natural flow of life we can harness pieces of human existence that are normally considered “bad” and create immense positive change with them. Stress pushes us to grow and become better, more capable people if we approach it the right way. Our bodies are built to be stressed, then recover, and if we facilitate those natural reactions we tune in to a deeper way of learning and growing.
If you’re ready to learn more about how to use stress as a powerful, positive force in your life, join our program Detox Your Mind: The Power of Stress Resilience.