Stress is a normal part of life and many events that happen to us and around us (and many things that we do to ourselves) will add to our stress. But what exactly is stress?
We generally use the word “stress” when we feel that events in our lives have become too much to handle at any given moment or when we are overloaded in general and wonder whether we can cope with the pressures placed upon us. So, can stress be defined as anything that poses a challenge or a threat to our well-being? Yes, but wait!
If you were to ask a dozen of your friends or co-workers to define stress, or ask them to explain what causes stress for them, you would likely get 12 different answers. The reason for this is because stress can be defined in many ways and we all react to stress differently. Stress can be good, bad, and/or ugly! What is stressful for one person may be pleasurable or have little effect on someone else. Therefore, understanding stress and managing your stress level is important. If nothing in your life causes you any stress or excitement, you may become bored or may not be living up to your potential. On the other hand, if everything in your life, or large portions of your life cause you stress, you may develop health or mental problems that will make things in your life worse.
When stress is ugly!
You probably already know that anxiety and tension (i.e., stress) play key roles in the progression of life-threatening internal diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes, but did you know that stress can also be seen on the outside of our bodies?
Is your hair thinning? Is your skin inflamed? Do your nails splinter faster than you can file them? What is going on to cause all this? It could be stress. If you have been on edge more than usual, you might be experiencing the ugly toll that stress can take on your looks.
When stress is bad!
When events or situations in your life become unpleasant and continue without relief, the mental and/or emotional strain can lead to a condition called distress -- a negative stress reaction. Distress can lead to physical symptoms including headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and problems sleeping.
Distress can also become harmful if you use alcohol, tobacco, or drugs to try and relieve your state of mind. Unfortunately, instead of relieving your stress and returning to a relaxed state, these substances tend to keep your body in a stressed state and cause more problems.
When stress is good!
You need some stress to get up in the morning because it is critical to feeling motivated and interested in life! Like bad stress, good stress (called eustress) gets the heart pumping, increases your breathing rate, makes you perspire more and causes chemicals reactions throughout your system.
The difference in bad stress versus good stress is in the type of chemicals we produce when we are excited and happy - verses being excited and apprehensive or unhappy. When we are in a “good” stress situation, we get a kind of “runners high” type of chemical cocktail. Lovely chemicals like endorphin, serotonin and dopamine are produced by our bodies and do all sorts of good things for us. They act almost like antidotes to the stress chemicals that can manifest as physical symptom or as a mental symptom like depression.
Want more good stress situations?
Exercise! Exercise reduces (bad) stress. Preliminary evidence suggests that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people. Why? Some researchers are looking at possible links between exercise and brain chemicals associated with anxiety and depression. Others think exercise thwarts depression and anxiety by enhancing the body's ability to respond to these conditions.
Biologically, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with the kind of stress you get from anxiety. It forces the body's physiological systems (all of which are involved in the stress response) to communicate much more closely than usual. The heart and lungs communicate with the kidneys, which communicates with the muscular system. And all of these are controlled by the central and “fight or flight” nervous systems which also must communicate with each other. This workout of the body's communication system may be the true value of exercise. The more sedentary we get, the less efficient our bodies become in responding to the stress that is considered bad for us.
Give exercise time to work
The stress-reducing changes wrought by exercise on the brain don’t happen overnight so give it time and don’t quit! Keep running or cycling or swimming or walking or weight training, etc. You may not feel a magical reduction of stress after your first bout of exercise but once those endorphins kick in, you’ll look forward to the release of negative emotions during your workout. Think about turning those potentially unhealthy emotions into motivation for increased health and well-being.
Managing your stress
Exercising is only one way to lower your anxiety. Since you probably can’t simply stop what you are doing during a stressful situation and start exercising, here are some other ways you can take the pressure off and manage your stress:
- Listen to music. Preferably not something loud and raucous. Make sure it calms you. Playing calm music has a positive effect on the brain and body.
- Call a friend and talk about what’s going on or simply vent! You’ll feel better.
- Talk yourself through it and tell yourself everything will be OK.
- Pay attention to nutrition.Don’t resort to eating sugary or fatty snack foods as a pick me up.
- Breathe easy and take a deep breath. Clear your mind.
- Laugh it off. Is the stressful situation really that bad?
- Have a cup of tea. Tea has less caffeine than coffee and contains healthy antioxidants and amino acids that have a calming and soothing effect on the nervous system.
- Sign up for yoga classes. Yoga trains you to build up a natural response to stress and bring the relaxed state of mind into your everyday life.
- Get some rest and sleep better. Lack of sleep is a key cause of stress.
You are in control!
It may seem that there’s nothing you can do about your stress level. The bills aren’t going to stop coming, there will never be more hours in the day for all your errands, and your career or family responsibilities will always be demanding. But you have a lot more control than you might think. In fact, the simple realization that you’re in control of your life is the foundation of stress management.
Managing stress is all about taking charge -- taking charge of your thoughts, your emotions, your schedule, your environment, and the way you deal with problems. The ultimate goal is a balanced life, with time for work, relationships, relaxation, and fun – plus the resilience to hold up under pressure and meet challenges head on.
So, the next time you feel stressed; think of cake, or ice cream, or your favorite desserts. Why? STRESSED spelled backwards is DESSERTS!
 American Psychological Association web article Exercise fuels the brain’s stress buffers http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/exercise-stress.aspx