Your eyes might glaze over when you hear the word “stress” these days because it has almost morphed into a pervasive cloud that just appears to have a permanent place in the atmosphere we breathe. We live in a technological world where we are required to be “plugged in” at all times, in addition to our daily necessary tasks of work in the workplace, home and family. We, unlike our ancestors, have many more opportunities because of the technological advances (that is a good thing). However, the caveat to these increased opportunities is a constant, incessant beating of the stress drum in our lives (that can be a bad thing). Couple that with increased concerns for the state of the economy, work pressure and family issues and you have the figurative compilation of all of the necessary notes of one of Beethoven’s least popular symphonies: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (reportedly sounding like a bunch of cats in heat):
What I propose is that we turn that stress drum that creates a dirge in some of our lives to a well-orchestrated symphony that can actually make us operate at a higher level, circumventing the long-term effects of unflagging unhealthy stress. The term “eustress” denotes stress that motivates. Associate Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Daniela Kaufer remarked, “You always think about stress as a bad thing, but it’s not….some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance.” This is denoted below by the Yerkes-Dodson Law graph, where performance and efficiency only increase to a point, intersecting with eustress, before unhealthy stress and anxiety take over:
The stress response itself, or the “fight or flight” mechanism in our physiological makeup saved us from being eaten and served up for dinner:
However, fast forward to our modern day problem with the stress response, emanating from the non-life threatening stress drum that never ceases, creating in some people, a cascade of physiological changes in the body, i.e. increased hormone production (A/K/A “the adrenaline rush”) and overstimulation of the autonomic nervous system (the “gas pedal” for your nervous system). This, plus the effect of chronic cortisol production under long-term stress can lead to negative health consequences like high blood pressure and brain permutations that contribute to depression, anxiety, lack of sleep, obesity, etc. (See “ Understanding the Stress Response”-Harvard Health Publications”).
Rethinking our reaction to the stress response:
1. Identify your current level of Stress- There are three levels of stress we all have to contend with:
a. Avoidable Stress- When a situation can be tweaked to avoid the potential source of personal stress. An example would be traffic jams at a particular time of day that really push your buttons.
Choosing to leave earlier or drive home at a later time to avoid the traffic rush could alleviate some of your stress load.
b. Challenge Stress- Situational stress that can be alleviated with preparation and a sense of challenge. So your boss wants you to present to the sales group next week and you fear speaking publicly. Take this presentation as a challenge first, but couple that with meticulously practicing your presentation in front of the mirror. Also, forgive and learn from your efforts after the event.
c. Inescapable Stress- There are certain people, situations and events we cannot escape from, i.e. illness, death, divorce, moving, even Aunt Minnie at holiday time. You might be living through one of those tough periods or have one of those people in your life that is a constant source of unhealthy stress. I’m not asking you to just put a band-aid on it and deal with it. One of the toughest times in my life was when my husband was faced with a life-threatening illness when our kids were little. At that time I did not deal healthfully with the unwavering stress. What I am asking you to do is to try the non-prescription techniques I’ve outlined below that are based on the works of Herbert Benson, Associate Professor at the Mind/Body Medical Institute of Harvard Medical School (The Wellness Book). What do you have to lose?
2. Are You Stress Hardy?- The Four “Cs” outlined below are ingrained in a stress-hardy person’s soul. Look around you and recognize that some people stand out because they are successful in turning the potentially unhealthy stress in their lives into eustress. We all can learn from them.
a.Challenge- Taking on each stressful situation, event or person as a challenge that can be learned from.
b. Control- Knowing that you are ultimately in control, not the outside stressors.
c. Commitment- A non-wavering commitment to the challenge stressor is imperative.
d. Closeness- Stress-hardy people all have close ties to either friends or family that support them.
3. Stress Control Techniques
a.Relaxation Response- This is the imperative “time out” that all adults really need. Exercise diaphragmatic (as opposed to chest) breathing:
Daily practice diaphragmatic breathing with a passive attitude, relaxing your body, scanning your body for any signs of stress, utilizing imagery and picking a focus word or phrase for 10-20 minutes per day. This diurnal drill will really come in handy when you are faced with a stress that normally would push your buttons. Time for a “mini” relaxation response! This is where you immediately call your practice into gear by exercising a shortened version of your breathing, having the effect of “stepping back” from the situation so you can re-think your response.
b. Minimum Battery Recharge- Eating healthfully, moving daily and receiving the correct amount of sleep (for you) will really go a long way toward attaining that eustress mindset. If you need ideas for these basics, see “N.W.T.C.” Should Be Everyone’s Mantra”, “Fixing Broken Sleep”, “High Intensity Interval Training for the “Time Challenged” and “Here’s a New Year’s Resolution with a Multifaceted Payoff: Yoga.”
c. Coping Skills- These are my top recommendations for coping skills. The key is to pick the ones that YOU respond to optimally:
1) Keep a daily journal.
2) Go to your friends or family for support.
3) Practice spirituality that keeps you grounded.
4) Make a pro/con list for the intended actions you could take to defeat your particular stressor.
5) Accept your action for dealing with a stressor and move on!
4. Get Rid of the Baggage!- To achieve the stress-hardy mindset means to unpack that baggage of negative thoughts. Hey, it’s good for our health too! “When our beliefs are hopeful and optimistic, the mind releases chemicals that put the body in a state of physiological rest, controlled primarily by the parasympathetic nervous system, and in this state of rest, the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms are free to get to work fixing what’s broken in the body (Mind Over Medicine by Dr. Lissa Rankin).” Here is some “baggage” we could all stand to lose:
a. All or Nothing Thinking- Always evaluating situations in the extreme, expecting yourself to be perfect.
b.Discounting the Positive- Letting one negative setback put your mind in a pessimistic tailspin when you actually have a mountain of positives in your back pocket.
c. Jumping to Conclusions- Your mind always thinks of the worst scenario with NO basis in fact.
d. Personalization and Blame- Assuming responsibility for an event that has no connection with your actions.
e. Labeling- Constantly calling yourself negative names when you make a mistake.
5. Other Stress Aids-
a. Aromatherapy- Essential Oils that are recommended for stress-relief are lavender, chamomile, clary sage, marjoram and neroli, just to name a few. These can be used in any number of applications, i.e. the bath (my favorite), compress, massage or diffuser.
b. Teas- Recommended teas for stress and anxiety are hawthorne, ashwaganda, eleuthoro and passionflower (See Best Teas for Stress and Anxiety)
c. Supplements- Choose supplements that support keeping your level of neurotransmitters at their optimum levels. As an example, supplements with some of these key ingredients are PharmaGABA, L-Theanine, or 5-HTP. Remember that high levels of stress, genetics, dietary deficiencies, medications and toxins play a role in neurotransmitter depletion that can lead you into that downward disease spiral.
Tips for Transforming Unhealthy Stress Into Eustress:
1. Indentify Your Current Level of Stress.
2. Adopt the Qualities of Stress-Hardiness.
3. Practice Stress Control Techniques Daily.
4. Get Rid of Your Pessimistic Baggage!
5. Non-Prescription Stress Aids Can Help You Too!
Don’t let stress rule your life! Only you have the power to turn your individual, subjective responses to outside stressors into empowering EUSTRESS!
I forgot to include one of the most important components for living a eustress, rich, robust life:
L A U G H T E R!
“Never be afraid to laugh at yourself, after all, you could be missing out on the joke of the century!”- Joan Rivers