Doctors, scientists, and the media warn us that stress is toxic and that ‘We Must Calm Down’ or suffer the health consequences. This causes a dilemma for many of us. How many people do we know who lead stress-free lives? And how often, despite our best efforts to manage or avoid it, do we encounter at least a moderate level of stress on a regular basis?
The problem is that stress is the result of caring about something; it is human and it is inevitable. – Donald Meichenbaum
Neurologically, a stress response is a milder form of a fear response (fight, flight, or freeze, for example). Whenever we feel vulnerable, our brain releases stress hormones that enable us to react quickly, with the aim of protecting us from physical harm but also from emotional harm. Even a remote threat of shame, failure, or loss can trigger a stress response.
Health Psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, explains that we experience two types of stress responses, distress and lesser-known eustress. Eustress is distress’s healthier and more helpful cousin.
When we feel stressed, hormones cortisol and adrenaline enable us to react swiftly by bypassing our critical thinking. Ever have an emotional outburst that left you feeling perplexed or remorseful later? Blame your distress response.
However, McGonical’s research suggests that if we feel prepared for a stressful event, our brain also releases neurochemicals that counter the kneejerk emotional reaction. Our eustress response releases DHEA and oxytocin that help us to focus, learn from our mistakes, and connect with others.
We may switch between eustress and distress easily in the same situation. An activity like skiing can trigger eustress while we are enjoying the steep slopes and then can intensify into distress when we get tired or hit an icy patch.
Our eustress and distress responses depend more on whether we think we can handle the stressor than on the stressor itself. Thus, changing our perceptions about stress can greatly impact our ability to cope with stressful events. Here is how.
Lack of clarity about our own stress makes it hard to know which resources we need to cope. Author of, I Know What To Do, So Why Don’t I Do It, Nick Hall, suggests that the first step to getting better at stress is to name it:
This repeated sense of failure conditions our brain to associate the goal with feelings of distress, which means that we are more likely to procrastinate, causing further distress. On the other hand, when we set and achieve even small goals, we increase our confidence in our abilities and increase the likelihood of a eustress reaction.
Changing attitudes towards stress may not change the stressful situation. However, when we believe that our stress response is evidence that we are not coping well and that our distress is harming our bodies, we are piling stress on top of stress. Consider the amount of times per day, week, or month that we think about stress and the cumulative effect that negative self-talk has on us.
Changing our stress perception makes us less fearful of stressful situations. McGonigal suggests if we believe that stress is an inevitable and a normal part our everyday experience and can actually help us, we pave the way for a healthier stress response.
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