What Do You Mean You Are Stressed?
I am so stressed.
I have been under so much stress at work.
I feel stressed.
We have heard it, and we have all said it so many times. Stress is consuming our lives, and we have no idea how to deal with it. No one is teaching us what it is and how to cope with it. What is stress? Is stress always bad? Are there different types of stress? How do we deal with and reduce bad stress?
I would say that stress is becoming a number one public health issue. Stress does not discriminate, and no matter if we are rich or poor, European or American, single or in a relationship, we all experience it.
Oftentimes, we do not see what is happening behind closed doors. We are unaware of the stress models go through because the camera depicts the perfect moments and photoshop just enhances them. We are unaware of the stress a single mother is going through because we see this perfectly dressed woman rocking her role as a business owner. The bottom line is, that we all experience stress.
What is Stress?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress is the physical or mental response to an external cause. (1) There are many different external causes that might cause stress, such as getting fired, not getting into your dream school, having a fight with your significant other, etc. You might be feeling your heart rate increasing as you are walking to the podium to hold a big speech. Your palms might be sweating right before you are about to talk to your boss about a promotion. There are many different ways in which stress can be induced.
An important thing to note is that not all stress is bad. You might think I am just making this up, but, bare with me as we unravel facts about stress not many people talk about.
Types of Stress
There are many different classifications of stress. One classification we are all probably familiar with is chronic vs. acute stress. However, another way to classify stress is as either good (positive), tolerable, or toxic. (2, 3) This classification is based on different effects stress response systems have on the body. (3)
Good (Positive) Stress
We are not really used to describing stress as good or positive. When we are talking about stress or using the word in our daily life, it generally has a negative connotation. However, science has shown that not all stress is bad. Eustress, or good stress, is the chemical response of the body when we are challenged in a fun way for example. This is why you see all those quotes about stepping outside of your comfort zone. When you step out of your comfort zone, eustress can make you feel excited, inspired, and motivated. (4) Whether it is setting challenging goals for ourselves or preparing for the first day at our new job, it is important to include eustress in our lives.
Different Ways of Incorporating Eustress:
- Devote your time to learning new things
- Challenge yourself physically through exercise - setting SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely) goals is crucial in this case; if you set unrealistic goals, you might find yourself experiencing bad stress or distress
- Incorporate things or events in your life that push you to be better and make you step out of your comfort zone (4)
Tolerable stress is defined as stress that is more severe and that could interfere with the brain architecture, but the support of friends and family is helping you cope with it and recover from it - making it tolerable. (2, 5) This is why having a support group, whether those are friends, family members, coworkers, etc., is of the uttermost importance. Your support group helps you develop coping mechanisms that allow you to recover from the stress you experienced. Examples of tolerable stress include the death of a family member, divorce, natural disaster, etc. (5, 6) All of these are examples of distress (bad stress), but your support group and coping mechanisms are what make it tolerable.
Every story needs a villain, correct? Well, this is our villain. Toxic stress is the most threatening form of stress. Toxic stress is a lasting and severe form of stress that occurs when one does not have any support (from an adult or a caregiver). (5, 6, 7) This type of stress can disrupt various organ systems and can cause lifelong health problems. (6, 7) You might be wondering, what type of stress is SO severe that it can disrupt the chemistry of a developing brain? (5) A perfect example is emotional child abuse.
Emotional child abuse is psychological abuse that interferes with a child’s emotional development and makes the child feel worthless, ashamed, and humiliated. (8) Although insidious and hard to prove, emotional abuse can have an effect on systems that regulate stress hormones, leaving the body in a fight-or-flight mode for a long period of time, which in turn affects the architecture of the brain and increases the risk of intellectual impairment. (5, 6)
How Do We Deal With and Reduce Bad Stress?
There are many different things we can do to deal with bad stress:
- Establish a strong support system (having people who will be there for you and help you get back on your feet when you fall)
- Incorporate some type of exercise into your routine
- Consume a healthy balanced diet
- Set SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely)
- Practice balance in every aspect of your life (9)