The word stress tends to be associated with a negative connotation, as something bad for your health or an unwanted component of life. For many, it is viewed as a necessary and unavoidable consequence of a busy life. In reality, stress is neither good nor bad. It is not an inevitable part of life for all.
Stress is generally defined as a psychological and/or physiological reaction to a perceived threat. There is a great variability on how people perceive the same or similar events, generating unique individual perceptions of threat. Stress can be experienced as a good thing if it is viewed as a challenge or excitement, raising motivation, enhancing goal-oriented behaviour and promoting satisfaction. This “good stress”, or “eustress” as described by psychologists, is experienced when there is no perceived presence of threat, such as going on a roller-coster or receiving a promotion. This is the type of stress that heightens our sense of arousal and makes us feel fully alive. It is acute and the body returns to its homeostasis once the stressor is gone.
In contrast, chronic stress is an ongoing experience that makes us feel unable to cope and escape in the presence of continued stressors, resulting in long term harmful physical and emotional effects. Even persistent good stress can turn into bad stress since the adaptive stress responses are triggered the same way, unless you are able to shift perception and perspective, and have developed a resilient attitude towards stressful events in your world. Ongoing uncontrolled stress leads to “distress” as it becomes harmful to the body, which can lead to “stress-related illnesses”, such as migraines, digestive disorders, skin issues, etc.
Chronic stress without coping mechanisms, down time or lifestyle balance can lead to burnout and serious health consequences. No time for life, no escape activities such as hobbies or vacation, sleep and rest deprivation, or no access to supporting resources can compound the effects of stress. Cortisol, the stress hormone, has been declared “public health enemy number one” as its build up in the body lowers the immune system, causes weight gain, generates digestive disorders, increases blood pressure, leads to heart disease, affects mental health, and reduces life expectancy.
In the film “Stress: The Portrait of a Killer”, jointly produced by National Geographic Society and Stanford University, award-winning neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky stated “stress is not a state of mind… it’s measurable and dangerous, and humans can’t seem to find their off-switch.” Stress has become an individual addiction, representing a serious health crisis in society.
If you feel that stress is overwhelming your life and impacting your health and happiness, it is time to take inner control to reach balance and wellbeing. Among common approaches to alleviate or manage stress, such as meditation, yoga, breathing training, relaxation techniques, mindfulness training, social connections and time in nature, it is important to reflect on how you perceive threats, shift perspectives about life, understand what is ultimately important and be deliberate in recalibrating the only factor that is within your control: you.