Research shows that too much stress can have very negative effects on our health and well-being. We may experience headaches, excessive fatigue, or digestive problems. Chronic stress can make us more vulnerable to physical illness, by weakening our immune system. Elevated cortisol (the stress hormone) has been shown to contribute to weight gain, especially around the waist, with all the added health complications that entails.  

But stress isn’t always a problem, is it?  

Events such as a job promotion, a wedding, a new addition to the family, or taking a long-awaited vacation, can also create an extra level of pressure in our lives. So can many other kinds of life-enhancing, enjoyable activities; learning a new skill, taking up a new hobby, going back to school, or the excitement of an upcoming holiday celebration. Anyone who has ever trod the boards in amateur theatricals can attest to the fact that there is plenty of stress for cast and crew alike, as opening night approaches!

This is eustress, or “good” stress.  

There are other situations that can cause us a very different kind of stress; losing a job, financial worries, relationship woes, or concerns about our own health or that of our loved ones. And to make matters worse, some of these difficult situations can go on and on, without resolution or improvement, for years. We worry. Our appetite, sleep, and mood can also suffer, triggering anxiety and depression.  

This is what we usually mean when we say we are feeling “stressed”. Actually, it may be more accurate to say that we are “distressed”.  

The difference is partly this; the stress we think of as “good” stress naturally includes a desired outcome. For instance, the stress of a job promotion may be accompanied by a pay rise and an elevation in our status. The stress of planning an overseas holiday results in an exciting trip and treasured memories for a lifetime. We are CHOOSING to take on the stress of engaging in these activities, because we see them as being worthwhile. Also, while there are additional demands on us, we feel we have the necessary resources to meet those demands. Basically, we believe it will all be ok in the end, and that we will be better off for the experience.  

When we are feeling overwhelmed by “bad” stress, we often feel that the situation has been foist upon us, rather than taking it on by choice, and there may be no desired outcome to make it all worthwhile. Also, when we feel that we don’t have the resources (time, money, energy) to meet all the demands on us, that’s when our stress levels really start to climb into the “distress” range.  

So, it’s not just the amount of stress that is significant, but also the type of stress, and our personal response to it, that determines whether we experience it as “distressing” or not.

 

Stress is like spice - in the right proportion it enhances the flavor of a dish. Too little produces a bland, dull meal; too much may choke you.

 

What can you do to avoid choking in a “bad stress” situation?

 

1. Exercise your power to choose.

Even if many aspects of the situation are out of your control, there are probably also some areas in which you can make choices.
When things aren’t the way you’d like them to be, you basically have four options;
1. Leave the situation
2. Choose to stay, and change the situation
3. Choose to stay, and accept the situation
4. Stay, give up, and do things that make the situation worse.  

In some instances, of course, leaving is not really an option. When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robbin Island, he could not simply choose to leave. But he certainly did not give up and do things to make the situation worse, either.

Most of us are not in such extreme circumstances. We may feel trapped, or restricted in our choices at times… but when we open up to the idea of actually choosing to stay, we may see that there are indeed some aspects of the situation we could choose to change, and perhaps others we could choose to accept. And if we decide to give up and do things to make the situation worse…. Well, that is our choice too.

 

2. Focus on your values.

Often we are prepared to endure a period of stress because we know that it is a necessary part of achieving some desired outcome. The more highly we value the outcome, usually, the more effort we are willing to put into meeting the extra demands. From running a marathon, to raising a child, we do “the hard thing” when we need to, because it’s important. It matters. It serves our values.  
When we find ourselves experiencing unwanted and unwelcome stress, re-connecting with our values can help us to make good decisions about how to respond. What is important to us in this situation? Who do we want to be? What do we want to stand for? What are the opportunities for us to live our values in this situation?

 

3. Muster your resources.

When we feel “stressed” it is not just a response to the situation itself, but also to our belief that we don’t have the resources to be able to cope with it. It’s worth taking some time to listen to the stories our mind tells us about this.  

There may be a very real basis for our fears. Perhaps we’ve been given a big project at work, on top of an already full schedule, with a tight deadline and no assistance? In that case, it may be perfectly appropriate, after giving it some thought, to go back to our line manager and ask which of our other tasks they would like to re-assign to someone else, so that we will have the capacity to complete the new project. None of us has infinite resources, and we need to take responsibility for budgeting them appropriately – not just our money, but our time and energy too.  

On the other hand, we shouldn’t always believe everything we think. Sometimes our fears are not based in reality, but in some old story that our mind has been telling us for years. Sure, we may feel that we never have enough time, enough energy, enough money… and this “not-enoughness” is really what distresses us. So, we can recognize the story and acknowledge it, and then open up to the possibility that there may be some resources available to us that we haven’t tapped into yet.  

Sometimes when we’re feeling like there’s “not enough time” the most helpful thing we can do is take a short break. It’s counter-intuitive, I know. But there is good evidence that we are able to work far more productively if we take regular breaks to relax and refresh our minds. Similarly, a short burst of exercise can dramatically improve our energy levels. Perhaps you are much more resourceful than you give yourself credit for. Could it be true?

 

What other things have you found helpful when dealing with “bad” stress? Please share with us in the comments!  

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