What is Stress?
Life is full of stressful situations
Your calendar is packed, your car won't start, and your kid's school just called about a behavioral issue. It's undeniable - life is full of stressful situations. With so many demands on our time, it can feel like we're drowning in stress. But to stay healthy, happy, and productive, we need to take control of our stress and that begins with being clear about what stress is and isn’t. In this lesson, we'll learn the basics of stress, how it affects us, and strategies we can use to keep our stress levels in check.
What is Stress?
Think of stress as your body's natural defense mechanism. When you experience a challenge or threat (whether real or imagined), stress hormones flood your body and prepare you to respond. You become alert, your muscles tense, and your heartbeat speeds up. This is called your body's "fight or flight" response or "stress response."
For example, when you're driving down the road and see a car coming toward you, you instinctively slam on the brakes or run out of the way. After the danger has passed, your body and hormone levels return to normal.
When is stress helpful, and when is it harmful?
Stress often gets a bad rap, however, stress is not inevitably bad. In some cases, stress can be helpful. Below, we’ll discuss two types of stress, acute and chronic stress, and which are helpful, and which are harmful.
Acute, or short-term, stress can help us cope with difficult situations. For example, if you're pressed for time, acute stress can sharpen your focus and put you in action mode. Or if you're in a dangerous situation, acute stress activates your "fight or flight" response. This type of stress can be helpful and necessary
Chronic, or long-term, stress can be harmful to your health, your concentration, and your productivity at work. When you suffer from chronic stress, your hormone levels and heart rate remain constantly elevated. This means your body must work harder to continue functioning normally, even when there's no immediate threat. As a result, you may experience poor concentration and motivation, headaches, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and other health problems.
In manageable amounts, stress can be helpful. But when stress becomes chronic, it can have a negative impact on our health, concentration, and productivity at work.
The Body's Response to Stress
Many of us experience stress so often that we don't notice its effects until it's too late. We allow stress to drain our energy, motivation, and health. Eventually, we reach a level of stress where we are no longer able to cope appropriately. To avoid this moment of overload we need to be able to recognize the common signs and symptoms of stress:
Responding to Stress
We all handle stress differently. For example, you might procrastinate and withdraw from others when you're stressed. Your colleague, on the other hand, may have headaches and get sick frequently. If you notice several of the signs and symptoms mentioned above, you need to take action to lower your stress level and minimize or reverse the effects. Here are a few strategies to help you get started.
Figuring out why you feel stressed takes some time and thought. Ask yourself, "What makes me feel stressed?" Maybe it's speaking in front of a crowd or working under the pressure of a tight deadline. Some other common causes of stress include dissatisfaction with your job, coping with a heavy workload, harassment or discrimination at work, marriage or divorce, and the death of a loved one.
Once you figure out what's causing your stress, you can come up with a plan to manage it best. For example, if you have a fear of public speaking, you can reduce your stress by practicing your speech several times beforehand.
When we experience a threat, our stress response is activated. The opposite of this is our "relaxation response," which is a state of deep calm. You can evoke your relaxation response - and thus your stress response - through relaxation techniques. For example:
- Focus on your breathing. Breathe slowly and deeply to calm your mind and body.
- Yoga. Combine rhythmic breathing with a series of postures and flowing movements.
- Repeated prayer. Say a prayer or a phrase from a prayer over and over, while breathing deeply.
Stress is often exacerbated by negative thinking patterns. When faced with a stressful situation, it's easy to blame ourselves ("It's all my fault."), view the situation as permanent ("Things will never change.") or generalize ("I can't do anything right.").
These thoughts can lead us to rush into disaster - or to view situations as much worse than they actually are. Take the employee who, after making a mistake on the job, says, "It's my fault. I'll never make it because I'm just not talented enough." Most likely, this view is neither realistic nor accurate, but it can affect how the employee behaves moving forward. Instead, what if the employee's self-talk went like this, "I made a mistake on this one project, but that was partly because the requirements weren't clear. I'll make sure to plan future projects in more detail." Completely different thought pattern with a different direction for future behavior.
Here are a few more examples of how you can turn negative thoughts into positive ones:
- Instead of "It's all my fault," say, "I played a role, but what other factors were at play?"
- Instead of "Nothing will ever change," say, "It happened just this once."
- Instead of "I can't do anything right," ask, "How can I improve?"
The key to changing your perspective is not to accept the negative thoughts that run through your head but to find positive replacements. By replacing your negative thought patterns with more realistic and proactive versions, you will feel encouraged to take action.
It's not the load that breaks you, it's the way you carry it. - Lou Holtz
While the first step to managing stress is to recognize the most common signs and symptoms, other strategies include knowing your stress triggers, practicing relaxation techniques, and changing your perspective.
When stress gets the best of us, it can be hard to let go and laugh. But there's a reason they say "laughter is the best medicine." Laughter can reduce your stress hormones, ease tension, boost your immune system, and relieve pain. Even a single hearty laugh can relax your muscles for up to 45 minutes afterward. To create more moments for laughter, watch a funny movie, read and share a joke, play a board game, and surround yourself with people who are fun.
All Systems on Alert
Recall a stressful situation you experienced. Maybe you gave a presentation at work, applied for a job, or avoided a near miss on your morning commute. During such a stressful moment, your body reacts - your senses sharpen, your heartbeat speeds up, and your muscles tense. Understanding these changes in your body is key to controlling your stress response and maintaining your health. In this chapter, we'll learn how our bodies deal with stress through a process called general adaptation syndrome. You'll also learn strategies to manage your stress response.
Our Body's Reaction to Stress
When we experience stress, it triggers a series of changes in our body. This stress response is called the general adaptation syndrome and occurs in three phases:
- Alarm Phase. First, our bodies release a flood of hormones that prepare us to flee or protect ourselves from the stressful situation.
- Resistance Phase. After the initial shock of the situation has passed, our body tries to slow down its stress response.
- Exhaustion Phase. When our stress is prolonged or very high, our physical, emotional, and mental resources are depleted.
Now that you have an idea of the stages of general adaptation syndrome, let's examine each stage in more detail.
1. Alarm Phase
You get into a stressful situation.
Your stress response begins in your brain. When you perceive danger, the alarm response phase is triggered and your brain signals your autonomic nervous system to act. This system consists of two components:
Sympathetic Nervous System
The gas pedal of your stress response.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
The brake pedal of your stress response.
Your body prepares to respond.
First, your brain activates your sympathetic nervous system, which pumps the hormone adrenaline through your body. This causes the following physiological changes:
- Your heart beats faster and circulates blood to your muscles, heart, and other vital organs.
- Your blood pressure rises.
- Your breathing speeds up.
- The airways in your lungs expand to take in more oxygen, which increases your alertness and sharpens your hearing, vision and other senses.
If the threat persists beyond the initial shock, your body releases the hormone cortisol to keep you on your toes and alert. But when the threat is over, your body slows down your stress response.
The alarm response phase is commonly known as the "fight or flight" response. Your body mobilizes to respond, either to defend against a threat or to flee to safety.
2. Resistance Phase
You continue to battle stress.
If your stressful situation continues beyond the initial shock, your parasympathetic nervous system intensifies its response and continues to work to lower your cortisol levels. When the situation ends, your body returns to its normal state (homeostasis). However, if the stress continues, your hormone levels remain elevated and your body remains on alert. Signs of the resistance phase include:
- Poor concentration
- Feelings of frustration
Strategies for Stress Reduction
In the resistance phase, it's important to reduce your stress level. If you don't, stress can lead to a number of health complications. Try the following strategies to lower your stress level.
Journaling is most effective when you do it regularly. But sporadic journaling can also help you manage stress. The most important thing is to focus your notes on emotional processing and gratitude. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Evaluate your emotional response. Ask yourself, "How did I react to my stressful situation?" Writing down your emotional reactions on paper will help you process your feelings and find healthier ways to respond in the future.
- Focus on positive things. Write down two or three things for which you are grateful. This can help you shift your focus from your problems to the resources you have available right now.
When you breathe deeply, the oxygen supply to your brain increases, which in turn stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system (the "braking system" of your stress response). Just a few minutes of deep breathing can have a big impact on your stress levels. Try the following breathing exercise:
- Close your eyes
- Inhale deeply through your nose. As you inhale, imagine that you are filling yourself with a sense of peace. Think, "I am breathing in peace and tranquility."
- Let the air out slowly through your mouth. As you exhale, imagine the stress leaving your body. Think, "I am exhaling tension and stress."
When we feel stressed or are struggling with problems, we tend to hide our feelings. We don't want to appear weak or incapable. But at some point, we reach a breaking point. Pent-up feelings often lead to embarrassing and inappropriate emotional outbursts.
It can be helpful to talk to someone about your feelings, especially if that person is going through (or has gone through) a similar situation. Another option is to talk to someone who has nothing to do with your situation. An outside perspective can help you find solutions or strategies you haven't thought of yet.
3. Exhaustion Phase
You have exhausted your resources.
If your stress continues for a long time, you will enter the phase of exhaustion. At this stage, you have exhausted your physical, emotional, and mental resources. You are no longer able to combat stress. As a result, you tend to develop stress-related health disorders, such as:
- Depression and fear
- Heart disease
- Digestion problems
- Premature aging
"Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by getting a bit older." - Hans Selye
Don't let your stress get out of hand.
Once you're exhausted, it's difficult to reverse the effects of constant stress. That's why it's important to keep your stress levels under control. You may not be able to control every situation that impacts you but try as much as possible to minimize the stress in your life. Journaling, deep breathing, talking to someone, and other stress reduction strategies can help. If you have tried several strategies and nothing helps lower your stress level, you should see a doctor to help you make a plan to better manage your stress.
To avoid the exhaustion stage of general adjustment syndrome, it's important to control your stress level. Once you enter this stage, it's difficult (though not impossible) to recover. Strategies such as journaling, deep breathing, and talking to someone can help, or you may need to see your doctor to get your stress level under control.
Do not avoid stress completely. While it's important to keep your stress levels low, in some cases stress can be helpful. In manageable doses, it can motivate us to perform better and succeed. Moderate stress, for example, strengthens the connections between neurons in your brain and helps you work faster under pressure. So as long as stress is not chronic, it can be a positive force in your life.
Recognize and Manage Your Stress Triggers
No One Is Immune
How often do you feel stressed? Is it a daily or weekly aggravation? Or do you tend to stay calm and collected? Stress is inevitable. But some of us feel it more often than others - and that's because we have different internal and external realities. Consider the following scenes:
The above scenarios are all examples of people experiencing stress. The triggers are different, but the consequences are the same - they cause the heart to race, the stomach to sink, and the muscles to tense. And while some triggers are universal, others vary by individual.
The first step to managing stress is to understand your triggers. You need to know what's causing a problem before you can solve it. So how do you do that? In this lesson, you'll learn what a stress trigger is and the two types we experience. Then we'll look at how to identify your triggers and take the first steps to manage them.
What Is A Stress Trigger?
Stress is a physical reaction to something that affects our well-being. It occurs when we feel threatened - whether that threat is real or imagined - and leads to a "fight or flight" response.
A stress trigger is an event or condition that triggers the stress response.
For example, a call from your boss can be a stress trigger if it makes you feel anxious or tense. Likewise, negative self-talk can be a trigger if it makes your heart race.
Types of Triggers
While there are countless stress triggers, we can divide them into two types: internal and external.
Internal triggers come from within. They are self-induced and the result of harmful emotions and thought patterns.
External triggers come from the outside. They are the result of things that happen to us and they are not so easy to control.
Be aware that while some external triggers are universal, our internal perception still plays a role in our reactions. That's why two people in the same stressful situation can have very different experiences.
Identifying Your Triggers
The first step to managing your stress is to figure out what's causing it. First, think about your current and past experiences. What internal thoughts and external circumstances have caused you to feel irritable? Can you identify any patterns?
The following lists can help you answer these questions. While they are not all-inclusive, they highlight some of the most common internal and external triggers. Which ones can you currently identify with? And how many have affected you in the past?
Worry. Worry, or the fear that something will go wrong can send your mind into a stress spiral. You might worry, for example, that a loved one has been in an accident. Or you might worry about an upcoming event, project, or interview.
Phobia. Some of us suffer from phobias. For example, we have phobias of confined spaces, flying, or crowds. And even if the threat is imagined, the stress response is real.
Lack of Control. Feeling helpless is a common stress trigger. At such times, there is nothing we can do but wait and hope for the best. Think about how you might feel as a passenger in a car or waiting for a test result.
Decision Making. When you have to make an important decision, you may feel stressed about that decision. For example, you might feel stressed about choosing the right college, the right job, the right car, the right partner, or the right apartment.
Unrealistic Expectations. When you expect too much from yourself and others, you get stressed. Think about how planning the "perfect" holiday meal or training a new employee can lead to stress.
Attitudes and Perceptions. Your perspective also affects your stress level. Think about how perfectionism, pessimism, and one-sided views can make a stressful situation worse. For example, imagine that you've been in a fender bender. You might think, "My car is wrecked! I don't have time for this." Or you might think, "I'm so glad no one was hurt. The insurance company will pay for the damage."
Internal triggers are unique to the individual. As you think about the issues above, write down how they have affected you personally. For example, what do you often worry about? What phobias, if any, do you have? And what unrealistic expectations have harmed you in the past?
There are triggers that we have no control over - they are imposed on us from the outside. For example:
Financial Problems. Financial worries are all too common. They can occur over the long term as you struggle to make ends meet. But they can also come on suddenly, for example, when a major purchase like a house is on the horizon.
The Workplace. A heavy workload, long hours, and demanding bosses can cause stress. You may also suffer from a toxic work environment with uncooperative colleagues, unclear expectations, or discrimination.
Social Stresses. Social stimuli and relationships can also cause stress. For example, you may feel stress when you go on a date, attend a party, or argue with a partner, friend, or family member.
How many of the above items were you able to check off? If you're like most people, the list is probably long - and that's perfectly normal. Stress is ubiquitous, and we all need to learn how to deal with it.
Stress triggers are events or conditions that lead to a stress response. These triggers can be internal and triggered by ourselves, or they can be external and happen to us.
Although there is likely some overlap, our triggers are unique to us. Common internal triggers include worrying, phobias, lack of control, decision-making, unrealistic expectations, and harmful perceptions. External triggers may include major life changes, workplace demands, environmental stimuli, health issues, financial pressures, unpredictable events, and social stressors.
The first step to managing stress is to find out what is causing it. So keep checking in with yourself and learn about your triggers. Then practice techniques to eliminate, reduce, and manage them. Remember that stress may be unavoidable - but it doesn't have to control you.
A Daily List. This lesson on triggers is just the beginning. You will probably experience many triggers throughout your life. So instead of ignoring them, write them down. Get in the habit of recording these moments and asking yourself, "Why?" and "What is causing this?" The more you know about your triggers, the easier it will be to manage them.
Good Stress Versus Bad Stress
"I am so stressed!"
When was the last time you heard someone say: "I feel great! My stress level has never been this high!" Probably never. That's because most of us think of stress as something to avoid. Feeling stressed is another way of saying we feel anxious, overwhelmed, or unable to handle a situation.
And to some degree, we are right to be cautious. Too much stress is bad. Chronic stress contributes to physical and mental health problems ranging from heart disease and high blood pressure to anxiety, depression and personality disorders.
But that doesn't mean all stress is bad. A healthy amount of stress keeps us focused, spurs us to achieve our goals, and challenges us to grow and develop as people.
So what distinguishes good stress from bad stress? And how can you tell the difference between the two? In this lesson, you'll learn the answers to these two questions. Then you'll learn some practical steps to bring more good stress into your life while keeping bad stress at bay.
What Is Good Stress Versus Bad Stress?
When most of us talk about stress, we actually mean distress. Distress is the term for bad or destructive stress. It's harmful to your health and well-being. For example, you might suffer from distress if you are overwhelmed at work. Being overwhelmed can make you feel anxious, overwhelmed, and lead to sleep deprivation. Chronic or long-term stress also falls into the distressed category.
In contrast, eustress is the term for good or constructive stress. This form of stress creates positive feelings and can have a positive impact on your life. For example, you might experience eustress when you start a new business. You might be nervous but also excited because you're pushing yourself to pursue a lifelong dream.
Compare and Contrast
Note that these definitions are based primarily on your personal feelings, reactions, and outcomes. There is no single event that triggers "stress" or "eustress" in everyone. A stressor that is exciting and energizing for you may be physically or emotionally draining for someone else. Below is a breakdown of the characteristics of eustress and distress so you can more easily distinguish between the two:
Eustress makes you feel excited or energized; it improves your performance, increases feelings of satisfaction, and promotes personal growth. In contrast, distress makes you feel anxious or overwhelmed; it decreases your performance, creates dissatisfaction, and negatively affects your health.
Now that you know the difference between eustress and distress, you can distinguish between the two in the following examples. Read the scenario on the front of each index card and then turn it over to see if it is an example of eustress or distress.
Example One. You take on a personally challenging and high-profile project that is doable for someone with your skills and experience.
This is an example of eustress. The project is challenging and high-pressure, but ultimately it's good for your professional development - and it's perceived as being within your capabilities.
Example Two. You learn a new skill that is outside your comfort zone.
This is a classic example of eustress. While learning a new skill can be uncomfortable, it is also exciting and leads to skill development and growth.
Example Three. You're worried about job security after recently being laid off and working a lot of overtime to secure your position.
This is a difficult issue. Even though the recent layoffs have resulted in increased productivity, your sudden surge in productivity is not seen as positive because it is based on anxiety, self-doubt, and fear. The extra hours you're putting in can also have a negative impact on your work-life balance and well-being. Therefore, this is an example of distress and not eustress.
Example Four. Dealing with colleagues who spread malicious rumors about you, intentionally insult, or ostracize you, or try to sabotage your work.
While healthy conflict and constructive confrontation can be a form of eustress, this scenario describes toxic and abusive behavior by colleagues. Therefore, this is an example of Distress. A toxic work environment affects your performance and is detrimental to your health and well-being.
Example Five. You get honest and actionable feedback from your boss about your unsatisfactory work performance.
Getting constructive feedback can be painful. But an honest and forward-looking conversation about how you can improve your performance is a form of eustress - not stress - because it gives you direction and motivation to do better.
A little stress and adventure are good for you if only to prove that you are alive.
All in all, avoiding or reducing stress in our lives is not enough. Just as too much stress is bad for our well-being, so is too little stress. That's why the most successful professionals - and satisfied people - actively seek out and embrace eustress. We need a healthy amount of stress to:
- To be motivated, to achieve our goals. Light to medium stress is the "fire" under our feet to achieve our most ambitious dreams and goals.
- Staying engaged. Without eustress, it's easy to become bored in life or at work, disengaged and under-stimulated. A healthy amount of stress causes us to pay attention and engage in whatever we are doing at the time.
- To Grow. You can't grow as a person or a professional if you never challenge yourself, step out of your comfort zone, or set goals beyond your current abilities.
Just as you need to expose your body to a healthy level of stress to build muscle and get stronger, you need a healthy level of stress in your work and life to build resilience and achieve personal or professional growth.
Bring More Eustress Into Your Life
You know your eustress level is too low when you feel bored, disengaged or stagnant. Has it been a while since you challenged yourself or pushed your limits? Have your skills or personal development stalled? If so, you may need a boost of eustress. Here's what you can do:
1. Try Something New
The first tip is to learn or try something new. Anything that is new or unfamiliar to you automatically challenges you to step out of your comfort zone - and creates a healthy stress.
- In your professional life, you might learn a new skill, start a new initiative, take on a new responsibility, or take a new direction in your career.
- In your personal life, you might start a new hobby, learn a new language, cook a new recipe, start a new personal or creative project, or even develop new daily habits like meditation, reading, or running.
2. Set More Ambitious Goals.
Set goals that feel like they are just beyond your reach - but still within your reach. Exceed what you think is possible, and have fun doing it! Ask yourself, "What would I like to do, experience, or achieve?"
For example, is there a promotion at work you have your eye on? Do you want to be able to run five miles? Do you dream of buying a house or climbing a mountain? Break down your most ambitious goals into small, achievable steps. Then start taking those steps to make them happen.
3. Put yourself in a situation that is uncomfortable - but good for you.
The third tip is to put yourself in a situation that is uncomfortable - but good for you. Think about the opportunities that would benefit you the most, but that you've been avoiding because they seemed too stressful, difficult, or uncomfortable. For example, you could:
- Participate in a networking event
- Find a mentor
- Join a new club, course, or recreational group
- Participate in or host a social event
- Take an international trip
Ask yourself, "What would I like to do if anxiety, fear, or stress didn't stop me?" Or, "What is the biggest thing I could do to improve my career, health, or social well-being?" Your answer to these questions is a good place to start.
How To Reduce Your Distress
In contrast, you know your stress level is too high when you feel emotionally or physically exhausted, overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed. You may also feel stress when you're faced with excessive demands, impossible goals, and a lack of resources. Here are three ways to relieve stress:
Reduce Your Stress
The first tip is to lower your standards. One of the most common reasons people get into distress is being overwhelmed. You simply have too many obligations. You can lower your demands by:
Say No. Don't say "yes" to every project or opportunity that comes your way. Instead, think about your current workload and schedule. What is your bandwidth? What can you realistically take on and what can't you? And what about priorities? Communicate your limits with your supervisor at work or recognize your limits in your personal life at home.
Delegate. If you feel overwhelmed, you can also delegate tasks to others. Does a co-worker or direct supervisor have the bandwidth to take on a task? Or can your spouse, significant other or children take on a household task? Delegate to share the work more evenly.
Defer. Finally, consider which tasks you need to do now and which you can put off until later. Do not put off urgent and unimportant things.
Increase Your Resources
If you can't lower your standards, you can increase your resources to meet those standards. You could do that by:
Get Help. At work, you can talk to your company about hiring additional support in the form of a part-time or full-time employee, contractor, or intern. At home, you should look for ways to get help with the projects you don't have time for yourself. For example, perhaps you can hire someone in your neighborhood to do yard work instead of doing it yourself.
Seek emotional and social support. Don't forget the emotional toll that adversity can take. Seek emotional or social support from your partner, friends, or family members. Consider getting professional support from a licensed therapist who can help you learn healthy ways to deal with stress.
Learn Coping Techniques. Finally, you can strengthen your resources by learning specific stress management techniques. These techniques include meditation and mindfulness, relaxation techniques, good sleep hygiene, and exercise. Or you could continue your education in a professional context to learn how to manage your tasks better.
Remove Yourself From The Situation
The last tip is to remove yourself from situations that are detrimental to your health and well-being. That might mean changing departments or jobs if you're working in a toxic environment. Or it could mean making some tough decisions in your personal life.
So strive for eustress in your life - and reduce stress at the same time. You can build healthy stress by learning or trying something new, setting ambitious goals, or putting yourself in situations that are uncomfortable but ultimately good for you. And you can reduce unhealthy stress by reducing demands, increasing your resources, or removing yourself from toxic situations.
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