Stress is a necessary part of life, and in the right dose, it can be a good thing. Healthy levels of stress motivate us to meet a deadline, zoom through our to-do list before leaving on vacation and make quick decisions under pressure.
The problem is that most of us don’t know how to practice safe stress. And our often overwhelming, overstimulating lives push us over the edge, into the world of unhealthy stress.
The Stress Response
Stress prods the pituitary gland to release a hormone called ACTH; this in turn kicks the adrenal glands into action and they pour out a substance called cortisol, which prepares our body to face any perceived danger — known as the fight-or-flight response. Designed to help us deal with acute threats like a car that suddenly veers into our lane, the chemicals flood our system, spur us into action and then dissipate when the situation passes.
But many of us live in a state of chronic stress in which the hazard lights are always blinking. Our brains are constantly reading the sign “Danger Ahead!” and flooding our bodies with these chemicals. We end up physically drained. As if that drained feeling isn’t bad enough, that then leads to related problems:
And then there’s the mental fatigue. Too much stress hampers our ability to concentrate on much else. It’s as if the brain signals get fried — all our mind can read is the sensation of being stressed, unable to focus on the task at hand.
How to Walk the Line Between Good and Bad Stress
Think of stress as a curve line on a graph, explains Thomas Morledge, MD, of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. As that line reaches its optimal point, stress can boost energy in a good way and promote motivation. Any point beyond that and your body starts responding negatively to stress.
Ideally, you want to dial up the good stress for times when you need some extra drive, then be able to hang up before it crosses over into unhealthy stress. What’s the magic stress number? It’s different for everyone.
“Due to our unique natures in the way that we are made up both genetically and physiologically, we all have different stress levels,” Dr. Morledge says. “So just as one person is really resilient and can tolerate high levels of stress well, another person can be destroyed by those same levels.”
But through self-awareness you can learn to recognize your stress threshold, then employ stress management tools to help you control it. For example, if you’re trying to resolve a problem and feel like you’re running into a brick wall, instead of getting more and more frustrated and stressed, back off from the problem. Spend a few minutes engaged in a pleasurable activity like talking to a friend or watching a funny show, or take a short nap, Dr. Morledge suggests.
That way, you’ll avoid the physical and mental drain of being overly stressed. “And when you come back to the same problem, oftentimes you realize that you can find the answers that you didn’t see at the time,” Dr. Morledge says. “Your mind is clearer and your thoughts are being facilitated instead of being blocked by the stress.”