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Rethinking the Way We Look at Stress

When you feel in control, stress becomes positive challenge.


Our modern lives are filled with constant stress and interruptions. Cell phones ring, E-mails ping, bosses (or kids) yell, traffic stalls, and time seems always to be running out. Intuitively, we feel that stress is bad for us—it ages us prematurely, makes us depressed or sick. And, indeed research shows that chronic, unrelenting stress can shorten the telomeres in our brains, wear down our immune systems, and damage our hearts. But stress is not inherently good or bad. It’s just a natural part of living in a changing, evolving universe. Researchers have found that healthy stress (or “eustress”) exists alongside unhealthy stress. If we never had to face new challenges, life would be monotonous and boring and we wouldn’t grow. So, how can we distinguish the two and harness the benefits of healthy stress? 

Unhealthy Stress

What makes stress bad for us is when it is so intense or unrelenting that we exhaust our resources and don’t have time to recover. Or we perceive that even our best efforts won’t help to change the situation. Or we feel constantly threatened and in danger of losing the things we have worked so hard for. Chronic stress can result from the situation, such as facing prolonged unemployment or an unwanted divorce. But how we view the situation and what internal or external resources we have to cope can make a huge difference to the impact. When our resources are worn down from a constant barrage of stressors, from a lengthy, unrelenting stress, or from a childhood filled with abuse or neglect, we are more likely to feel out of control and to focus on the negative and what we are in danger of losing. This triggers our brain and nervous system into a constant state of “fight or flight,” in which our hearts race, breathing gets shallow, blood pressure rises, and we don’t calm down when the stress is over. Chronic relationship or work stress may always be on our mind, interfering with sleep, concentration, and our ability to relax. Over many years, our minds and bodies get worn out from chronic stress and we may experience a host of symptoms and diseases, ranging from headaches to diabetes and cancer.

Healthy Stress or “Eustress” 

If stress has all these negative effects, how can it be healthy? Well, it turns out that our bodies were designed to gear up energy and strength to deal with acute stresses and then rest and recover. So if we face a specific challenge, such as giving a presentation, running a race, networking, going on a first date, a job interview, or taking an exam, we may feel stressed for a while, but then we feel better. In fact, if we prepare properly for the stressful event, seek appropriate support and resources, and see it as meaningful or a personal challenge, we can turn these stressful events into positive experiences and opportunities for growth. The resulting positive emotions of pride or excitement can be motivating and invigorating. While our bodies may still go into “fight or flight,” with the same racing heart and sweaty palms, we may interpret this as excitement rather than terror. Like riding a rollercoaster or giving a successful speech. And when it’s done, we experience a relaxation response, as our brains signal safety. And we may feel like a better person for having done it, or savor the experience in our memory to revisit later on. We experience engagement, hope, and confidence. If we can do this, we can do something even more difficult the next time. We start seeing ourselves as resilient, capable, or even brave.  

Final Thoughts 

The focus on “eustress”  is the new theory of stress, put forward by business and positive psychology authors Nelson and Simmons. Or rather, this is an old theory of stress, originally put forward by endocrinologist Hans Selye in the 1960’s, but now given new life. Research with nurses and college students seems to support these ideas, as well as the association of “eustress” with a sense of health and wellbeing. So, can you turn your stress around by seeing the situation as a challenge and opportunity for growth? And by learning coping skills to help you let go and relax so you can renew your strength in between challenges? I’m going to try…

About The Author:

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, and expert on Mindfulness, Managing Anxiety, and Depression, Succeeding at Work, and Mind-Body Health. Dr Greenberg provides workshops and speaking engagements for your organization and coaching and psychotherapy for individuals and couples.

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