Stress is an integral part of our lives, no matter in what areas of life. Even if we exercise regularly, take well-deserved breaks and meditate - stress is a constant companion.
The wiedely circulated image of a supposedly stress-free everyday life on social media, leads many (especially young) people to self-doubt and frustration. We have all been taught that stress can only have negative effects on our mental and physical health. Chronic stress for example, can lead to high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems. By weakening the immune system, stress makes us more susceptible to illness and can furthermore lead to asthma, digestive disorders and even cancer. Recent studies show that stress also accelerates the aging process.
It's no wonder then, that we all strive to live as "stress-free" a life as possible - and thus stress ourselves even more and doubt ourselves when this doesn't work out the way we imagine. But what would happen if we accepted that stress is an inherent part of our lives? How can we learn to deal with stress? Is there even a healthy form of stress?
Eustress vs Distress
In psychology, a basic distinction is made between two forms of stress. "Distress" and "Eustress." Distress refers to the form of negative stress which we are all familiar with. Distress feels unpleasant and can lead to both psychological and physical illness. In addition, distress can occur over a long period of time as well as for short periods of time and reduces our overall performance. Negative stressors that can create distress include death in the family or close associates, divorce, physical injury or illness, sleep problems, unemployment, financial or legal worries, chronic feelings of being overwhelmed, or conflict situations with others.
Eustress - the positive form of stress - is a term few of us know, however the feeling is familiar to the vast majority. It is the kind of stress that feels more like excitement or anticipation, motivating us and increasing our performance. In contrast to distress, eustress only occurs in the short term. Positive stressors can fro example include a promotion or a raise, a new job, the birth of a child, a move, a trip, a wedding, or learning a new hobby.
Your bodies stress response
Psychologist Kelly McGonigal calls attention to new findings in her exciting Ted Talk. She references studies from Harvard University that show evidence that our perception and interpretation of our perceived stress, can effect the physical effects and negative consequences on our health.
When we are under stress, our bodies often respond with signals. Faster breathing, increased heart rate and sweating are among the body's stress responses.
McGonigal now raises the question of what would happen if we were aware of these reactions but interpreted them differently for us. That the signals of the body do not alarm us even more, but we perceive them as a supportive reaction of our body for a challenging situation. The faster breath then only ensures that more oxygen reaches our brain and makes us more efficient. The increased pulse then merely boosts our energy and motivation.
Cuddle hormone vs stress
Another stress reaction of the body is the release of the neurohormone oxytocin. Affectionately known as the "cuddle hormone," the release of oxytocin triggers our need for connection and physical closeness. At the same time, the hormone has positive effects on our cardiovascular system, because it regulates blood pressure and cortisol levels and can thus protect against the long-term effects of stress. Oxytocin is thus the body's mechanism for coping with stress.
3 action steps you can take in stressful situations:
But what does all this mean now? What can we actively do in stressful situations?
1. Reframe it! In stressful situations, be aware that you are under stress and what your physical reactions are at that moment. Try to breathe deeply and give a new context to both your physical signals and the situation.
2. Move your body to help it release the stress hormones. That doesn’t mean you have to go to the next spinning class right away, but feel free to take a short walk.
3. Talk to others about your experience and feelings. Feeling connected to others will ensure that more oxytocin is released and can therefore affect your feelings of stress.
Do not fall into the self-optimization trap
These tips are meant to support you in your stress management and help you to get to know yourself and your body better. However, if you feel chronically stressed, we would like to advise you to get professional help.