I’ve read a lot of definitions; most of them focus on the worry and anxiety that come with stress. But what about stress as healthy? Without some kind of stress, wouldn’t we all just lie around and eat Godiva chocolates all day, watching too much reality TV?
Stess is a fearful response to life’s changing circumstances. We know that life is going to always be throwing changes at us, there’s no way to avoid this. If we try to dig our heels in and fight every change that comes our way, we will lose…and we will be exhausted.
Healthy stress: does that sound strange to you?
Some of us work better with deadlines than without them (I’d raise my hand here). Some of us like a hit of fear/excitement now-and-then. Some of us don’t mind getting a little nervous before we speak before a group, walk into a party or give a presentation at work. For some of us, this kind of stress is energizing. Shirley MacLaine said that if she’s not nervous before a performance, she knows it won’t be a good one. She said that the nervousness gave her energy and motivation.
Years ago, a meditation teacher told me that fear and excitement are two sides of the same coin. He was right. You can’t have one without the other. Anything new brings both excitement and fear in one big package. Healthy stress is when that package works for us; unhealthy stress is when it doesn’t.
So how do we keep healthy stress from morphing into unhealthy stress?
We can start by knowing and observing ourselves so we can find a desirable balance of healthy/unhealthy stress. It’s different for each of us: one person’s excitement is another person’s anxiety. Start to watch what situations bring you energy (healthy stress) and which ones overwhelm you (unhealthy stress).
One great way to keep the balance on the healthy side is exercise. According to the research I’ve read, it’s one of the best ways to avoid unhealthy stress. Doctors say that there is no drug that offers us the benefits that exercise can.
Research shows that exercise leads to better thinking and actually brings more blood flow to our brain. During and after exercising, parts of our brain are activated that are associated with complex thinking and problem-solving. Exercising makes it possible for us to deeply rest and a relaxed brain makes creative associations much more easily than a stressed one.
It’s important that we find our healthy/unhealthy stress balance, because – from what I’ve read – when we experience too much stress, our pituitary gland jolts our adrenal gland and adrenaline cranks up our heart rate and blood pressure.
Cortisol – a hormone closely related to unhealthy stress – causes inflammation, strains our circulatory system, thins our skin, wastes our muscles, weakens our immune system and viruses that cause colds and cold sores take hold. Another article I read says that under repeated high stress our cognition slows, we may feel depressed and our ability to concentrate goes down.
Yikes! Unhealthy stress is certainly correlated with a whole bunch of bad stuff. On the other hand, research also shows that, as human beings, we need a certain amount of healthy stress to keep our systems tuned. Some people enjoy the stimulation and excitement of healthy stress and wouldn’t want to live without it.
I’ll close with how one study beautifully described the benefits of healthy stress:
Human minds literally seek reasons to live.
Many people, as they get older, deeply care about future generations and the world’s survival.
If they have a chance to make a difference, that keeps people healthy.
I couldn’t say it better.