Good Stress vs. Bad Stress
By: Personal Development Coach Peggy Sealfon
Stress in inevitable. It’s part of our humanness and invades every aspect of life. It’s our basic survival mechanism; yet too much can kill us. Some stressful events motivate us. But when we experience chronic stress, it can seriously harm both physical and mental health.
To understand when stress is good or bad, let’s explore what happens when we experience stress. Usually there’s a stimulus–a challenge–which triggers a reaction of the “fight-or-flight” system in our brain. This biological stress response releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol which speed up the heart rate, increase circulation and propels energies into our limbs. This natural response improves our mental acuity to assess the danger and boosts our strength to fight or run away from the ferocious predator. When this occurs, the body’s non-essential functions such as digestion and the immune system shut down.
The stress response was intended for short bursts after which the body requires rest to restore and renew. The problem in our culture is that we are incessantly on high alert and anxious. As a result, we suffer biological aging, mental dysfunction, panic attacks, and depression, develop high blood pressure, diabetes, and eventually succumb to cancers, stroke or heart attacks.
When we become aware of our response to stress, we can use stress hormones more effectively. Referred to as “eustress,” this beneficial stress can assist us to perform more optimally for short periods. We can feel more alert and equipped to handle activities such as giving a speech, taking a test, meeting a deadline or competing in a sporting event. Actors and performers often feel adrenaline flooding their bodies which assists them in delivering a sharper performance. Even entering into a new relationship or starting a new job or career, having a baby can be stressful in a positive way that is delivering life satisfaction and ultimate well-being.
Hazardous stress occurs when we are perpetually in over-reaction to events and circumstances and we enter a place of dysfunction and illness.
The body is an amazing creation that is consistently working to repair itself and come into balance to achieve homeostasis. When we are in an integrated state, we function optimally. When we are out of alignment, we struggle. Stress becomes crippling.
Here’s what happens: We start worrying about everything—our job, finances, family, etc. As we focus on disquieting thoughts, they turn into fears and sometimes to panic. These feelings get energetically trapped in our body and mind and prevent us from seeing reality as it is.
The problem is that our fears — which are usually of our own making — can seem like a Bengal tiger to us and stimulate an undesirably prolonged stress response. Stress becomes a habit and is literally grooved into the brain’s neural pathways. As a troublesome situation occurs, we default to that patterned negative behavior. Hormones are released and we continually feel agitated and nervous. This depletes and fragments our energies. We feel more and more unfocused, frazzled, frightened. Eventually our body is so overloaded with stress hormones it can’t continue to repair itself resulting in illness. We end up feeling sad, unworthy and a mess of jangled nerves.
Signs of Serious Stress
The bottom line is that we cannot control external circumstances. What we can do is control our reactions to them. We can learn skills that help us cope more effectively to bring mind and body into a healthier state of integration.
However, if we’re experiencing any of the following symptoms for more than a few weeks, we should seek professional help:
• Unsubstantiated worries
• Overwhelming apprehensions
• Exaggerated reactions
• Irrational fears
• Recurring nightmares
• Poor judgment
• Increasing memory issues
• Inability to handle everyday tasks
• Panic attacks
Awareness is Key
Fortunately there are numerous techniques available that are effective for interrupting patterns of stress. The first step is to become more aware of any stressful reactions and notice what we’re thinking and feeling. If we’re feeling irritated or nervous, pause for a moment’s self-reflection to discern if the stressors are good or bad, prolonged or of short duration. In this way, we will begin to recognize challenges to be addressed and we can be empowered to change those patterns of bad stress. By balancing tensions with periods of relaxation, we improve our everyday performance, optimize the functioning of our body and ultimately feel more alive and happier.
Peggy Sealfon is a personal development coach and author of the best-selling book Escape from Anxiety—Supercharge Your Life with Powerful Strategies from A to Z. She is founder of the Integrated Life Personal Coaching System (IntegratedLifePlan.com) and offers a free audio to use for interrupting stress at 3MinutestoDestress.com Access additional free tips at PeggySealfon.com