For most of us, when we hear the word stress we think of distress, the negative impact of mental or emotional strain or physical tension in our lives. Don’t we sometimes wish we could remove all stress from our lives? Come on, admit it. Time to get that program that promises stress free living. Then, we’d be happy, right? But what would we have left without stress?
Would life really be life at all without some stress or tension? Would we want to watch our favorite sports team if there was no tension in the game. How about watching a movie or TV show if there were no intense emotions or dramas?
Stress can help push us out of a rut, perform better in a race or contest, or get us to focus on an area of our lives that we have been neglecting. When I was a freshman in high school I heard the term Eustress. Our health teacher called it happy stress. Eustress comes from the Greek word EU which means good or well. It is a positive feeling or healthy response to a stressor or stressful event.
Eustress is created by a focus or perception that the stress one is experiencing is or can be helpful.
Yes, our perception of stress has a HUGE impact on the amount of stress we feel.
So it is good to have stress?
Hans Selye, a Hungarian clinical endocrinologist coined the term Eustress. Dr. Selye is considered by many to be the father of research and study on the topic of stress. He built the largest database of stress literature on the planet. This pioneer of stress research said, “Stress is the salt of life. You have to be under stress to make life worth while… My philosophy is to work on the stress level to which I was born.”
What does salt do? It makes food more tasty, right. Stress can do the same thing for life. We also know too much salt is bad for our health yet so many of us consume too much of it. The same goes for stress. Stress can be helpful, but we must be very mindful to manage it so we don’t get overloaded or overwhelmed by it.
In his initial research, Dr. Selye used the term noxious agents or stimuli instead of the word stress. He said that noxious stimuli can propel us through three stages when it is received by our body. He called this process the General Adaptation Syndrome.
The first stage is an alarm reaction. Psychologists would say this is when the amygdala in our brain receives the stimuli and sends out the fight or flight signals. We feel this alarm response in our bodies when our heartbeat increases, our breathing quickens, and blood flows out of our heart and brain to our extremities to get ready for this real or imagined threat. Remember the last time you got scared, upset, or angry. This is when the stress hormones like cortisol start getting released into our bloodstream.
The second stage for the noxious stimuli is resistance. Our bodies naturally do their best to resist the impulse of being upset and try to put things back into balance. Think of the last time you smelled something noxious. Did you hold your breath, cover your nose, or close or open your car windows depending on where the smell came from? Anyone parent, especially those with boys, knows what noxious smells can suddenly manifest from the backseat of a car. More than a little alarm reaction there!
After we resist, we need to release otherwise we wind up in Selye’s third stage in the body as the result of this noxious agent exposure which is exhaustion. This is what happens when we hold the stress response and resist for too long getting overwhelmed and depleting the energy in our bodies.
When we resist we start to deplete our reserves much like an airplane that burns more fuel when it is flying against the wind. The longer the plane flies against the currents, the more fuel it burns. Running out of fuel is obviously a very bad thing for a plane just as it is for the body. That’s when we might get a cold, flu or something even more serious like severe depression or even cancer. Research has proven that chronic stress keeps our cortisol levels high thereby weakening our immune system causing all manner of physical problems and also wreaking havoc with our emotions.
As long as we release the stress not too long after we get in stage two, we can keep in balance. But, if we do nothing to mitigate the stress, then we will understand the mantra of the Borg characters in the Star Trek series, “Resistance is futile.”
Some people have a greater threshold than others before reaching this exhaustion phase, but we all will get there if the chronic stress is not lessened. Some salt makes food taste better, but too much can be a problem.
Years ago when I was in middle school home economics, I accidentally used salt instead of sugar.when baking cookies. I can still see my classmates and teachers expression on eating the cookies. That was a stressful situation! So Yes,some stress can be helpful or good, but up to a point. We just need to be very mindful of our stress levels and which container holds the sugar and which one holds the salt!
How can we best manage our stress and add just the right amount of salt to our diet?
Here are some wonderful ways to use stress and help keep our stress levels in balance so they don’t get too high:
1. Change your thoughts about stress.
Realize not all stress is bad and some can be helpful. I run outside year round and this winter was brutally cold. Did I let the cold weather stop me from running? No. I just added a third layer of clothing and wore an extra hat and multiple gloves. I may have looked like an Eskimo with all the extra clothing, but at least I was warm enough to run outside even in the extreme cold conditions. And I have to say some of my best workouts this winter were when the weather was the coldest. If I would have focused on how cold the weather was, I would have felt much colder outside, even with all the extra layers of clothing on. Of course, I did not resist too long as I eventually went back inside and took a warm shower.
2. See the Opportunity in Stressful events
When we notice or start to feel that we are stressed, we have the opportunity to bring ourselves back to center. It is a choice point. We have a choice, and the choices are made more visible by the stress. Without the stressors, we would not know as precisely when we are off course. Stress thus acts as a sort of guide or compass for getting us back on course. Stress is like the construction worker on the road who is waving the bright orange flag telling us to slow down, drive carefully, and watch where we are going. Sometimes stress is so subtle we cannot feel it, so sometimes having a bit more stress is like that orange flag being waved at us. When we pay attention to stress, we can let it help guide our lives for what needs our focus to help us stay on course.
3. Have a regular mindfulness or meditation practice.
Research has proven the benefits of mindfulness and meditation to lower cortisol levels, increase our immune system functioning, decrease the area in our brain that responds to fear and threats (Amygdala) and reduce stress, depression, worry, and anxiety. Spending even five minutes in silence, short yoga exercises or tai chi movements, mindfully walking or practicing mindful eating can help raise our stress tollerance before we would get to an exhaustion stage.
4. Adding a touch of humor to your stress
The comedian Steve Allen used to say, “There is nothing as funny as the unintentional hunor of reality.” Everyday life offers so many opportunities to explore this saying in all its spledor. When my first dog lost an eye to glaucoma, it was a very stressful experience. Years later he had to have surgery to remove a tumor in his mouth and as a result many teeth including a large canine had to be removed. So there my family was with a flat-coated retriever that only had one eye and missing a bunch of teeth. My youngest son said, dad, we now have a “Pirate” dog. We all laughed it helped lighten the mood in our household quite a lot.
Remember that some salt does indeed make food more tasty, too much, and we make our food taste horrible. You just have to know how much salt to use based on the different foods we eat. The same goes for stress. We need to know how much stress we can handle before we get overloaded and exhausted. Try the four steps above for knowing how to allow life to sprinkle in the proper amount of stress into our lives.
Mindfully yours with a touch of salt, Todd
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Todd Corbin is a certified parenting coach, mindfulness teacher, and stress management expert. He is creator of the “7 Breaths to Less Stress” program.
Todd has been trained by some of the leading mindfulness and meditation practitioners in the world… Deepak Chopra, Neale Donald Walsch, Dr. Daniel Siegel, and Dr. Amy Saltzman.
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