Deadlines. A never-ending to-do list. Conflict with family or friends. Relationship woes. Health issues. World events. Stress is everywhere, but knowing the difference between helpful and unhelpful stress can be a game-changer.
We know we’re supposed to minimize the amount of stress in our lives. We constantly receive the message to limit the stress we face, and we know that we should be practicing self-care techniques like getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and investing in our emotional health. We know that any type of stress is bad.
Or is it?
Did you know that there are different types of stress, and that some of those types can actually be beneficial for us? Knowing which type of stress you are experiencing can help you decide how to best respond to it.
Your body’s stress response
Before we talk about the differences between healthy and unhealthy stress, it’s important to understand how your body responds to stress in general. When you encounter a situation in which your body’s stress response is activated, it moves from a state of rest to a state of “high alert.”
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “fight, flight, or freeze” — this describes the ways in which we respond to stress. When you encounter a stressful situation, your body uses the stress hormone cortisol (among other endocrine system processes) to activate mechanisms to help you respond in one of these three ways: increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, your breathing, and your muscle tension. Muscle tension helps your reactivity and reduces the chance of injury. Increased breathing helps to get more oxygen to the systems that need it. An increased heart rate and blood pressure helps direct blood and oxygen flow to your heart and larger muscles needed to respond to stress. The important thing to note is that all of these physical reactions to stress are meant to help us prepare to successfully respond to stress or danger in our lives. If you encounter a dangerous situation, like stepping into the street in the face of an oncoming car, you need your body to kick into gear to get you out of harm’s way.
When stress is beneficial
We’ve already looked at one way in which your body’s stress response can be beneficial: when faced with any type of danger. It can also be beneficial in situations where you need to be alert and able to respond quickly. You might remember feeling stressed before a big exam in school or competition. I remember feeling so nervous before my licensing exams I needed to take to be a counselor. If we don’t feel cool and confident before an exam or performance, that can add even more stress. Being a little bit stressed or worried before an exam, performance, or competition, however, simply means that your body is alert and ready to respond to help you be at your best. If you were completely relaxed before a competition, you might not perform as well as you are able to.
You also need to be alert in situations of change, even if it’s a good change. You might feel stressed when your schedule changes (e.g. working from home, changing schools, ending a relationship) — this is your body and brain’s way of staying alert to help you respond in the best way possible to these changes. In other words, your body’s stress response is advantageous when you need to be “on your toes,” even if it is an uncomfortable feeling in some situations.
When stress isn’t beneficial
While our body’s response to stress is meant to be helpful, it can take a toll when we are constantly stressed. When you are under stress for a sustained period of time, your body isn’t able to return to it’s normal, relaxed state. If you work a high stress job (e.g. ER doctor, stock market, law enforcement), have a consistently busy schedule, or are experiencing sustained interpersonal stress (such as a breakup, an ongoing family argument, conflict with your significant other, or tension with your coworker or boss), that means your body is working hard to maintain the fight, flight, or freeze response over an extended period of time.
This compounded and chronic stress can cause host of issues like chronic headaches or migraines, back pain, jaw pain, hypertension, inflammation, digestive issues such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), compromised immune system, and other issues. In these situations, stress no longer becomes helpful and instead causes wear and tear on your body.
Choosing how to respond
When you can recognize that you are feeling stressed, but that it’s your body’s way of helping you through a situation, you gain a greater awareness and appreciation for how your body and mind work together. You can also normalize any feelings of stress you might notice when you’re going through a time of change such as a move, new job, or any kind of life change. And you’ll likely notice that that stress tends to disappear as you adjust to the new situation.
When you notice that the stress isn’t going away like you expected it to, or that stress is coming from something other than “typical” or “normal” stressors, you might consider taking action to help protect your body and mind from the effects of being in a prolonged state of stress. For example, if you are in a high-stress job and, even though you given yourself a period of time to adjust, you’ve found that the stress has started to leave you feeling irritable and experiencing symptoms such as sleep issues, digestive problems, and energy changes, it’s likely a sign that your job stress is harming rather than helping your mental and physical health. In these types of situations, you might consider removing the stressor all together, reducing your exposure to it, or taking steps to protect your mind and body from the strain through self-care and other healthy practices.
Stress doesn’t have to leave you feeling out of control or overwhelmed. Being able to recognize the difference between helpful and unhelpful stress is the first step in equipping yourself to effectively respond to stress in your life. When you feel confident about managing the stress in your life, it frees you to perform at a higher level and take care of yourself at the same time.