The upside of stress

January 23, 2009 at 8:17 am 1 comment

We’re always hearing about how bad stress is for us. And, considering what extreme stress does to the body – “…headaches, stomach pain, high blood pressure, insomnia, and mind freeze…” – it’s understandable that we’re not encouraged to embrace it.

But can stress actually help us, rather than just hurting?  Turns out, it can.

In reasonable amounts, stress can make you more alert. The “fight or flight” hormones and other stress-induced hormones heighten your senses, speeding up your heartbeat, improving your brain’s blood flow and improving vision and hearing. These hormones can even strengthen your immune system and prevent age-related memory loss by increasing brain cell activity. All this can serve to help you get more stuff done when you need to.

It can be hard to find the balance between good-for-you levels of stress and a harmful state of agitation, but you can learn where the tipping point is and utilize a variety of techniques to keep yourself on the right side of the line.

Having some degree of control – or thinking you do – generates more beneficial stress hormones. Even if you don’t have control, you can fool your brain into thinking you do. Choose not to respond to a certain stressor. Don’t check e-mail, for example, except at designated times. Or, work on other areas of your life over which you do have control, particularly if you’re good at whatever it is. Do something meaningful, like volunteering or donating or helping a friend in a difficult situation.

Taking time to pause also helps keep stress at positive levels. That’s often easier said than done, but when you force yourself to stop and breathe deeply, you often recognize which situations are beyond your control and which ones you can do something about. Pausing keeps you from letting your anxiety spiral into an unchecked panic attack. Ask yourself, too, if your immediate response to the situation is going to make things better or worse. Are you generalizing about your role in whatever is causing you stress?

Limiting perfectionist tendencies is important, too. Perfectionism is unrealistic and sets up unreasonable expectations that lead to unnecessary stress.

Believe it or not, a little bit of stress acts almost like a stress vaccine. If you’ve never experienced a stressful situation, you may fall completely apart when it happens, not being able to handle the surge of hormones flooding it. Having survived some stressful times means that your body is prepared to deal with its biological response when something negative occurs.

And, as we all know, exercising is a terrific way to manage stress. Exercise releases endorphins, the “feel good” mood boosters.  Benefits typically kick in about an hour after you’ve worked out.

So, when you’re feeling stressed, don’t automatically assume it’s a bad thing. Remember that stress can be beneficial when it’s kept at manageable levels and use all the techniques at your disposal to make the most of it.

Entry filed under: coping strategies, morale boosters, news around the blogosphere, science, tips & techniques.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Stress exerciser  |  March 23, 2009 at 7:02 am

    Is there any circumstance under which exercise can be dangerous to your health? I have never heard anyone speak of this yet we do hear of athletes and the like who collapse and die due to overly rigorous activity.


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