Stress: the good, the bad and the ugly

Stress: the good, the bad and the ugly

Stress is one of those phenomenons that always get bad attention. Stress elevates blood pressure, stimulates depression and anxiety and it increases the chances of you behaving badly, like smoke and drink more. Now, I won’t say that it is not true, because it often is, but stress also has a positive side that I would like to tell you about. That is why in this article, I will break stress down in the good, the bad and the ugly, but before that, we have to talk about what stress is.

What is stress?

We all know the feeling of having stress, because deadlines are coming up, your mind is racing and you can’t get any sleep. But to understand stress, we have to look deeper inside of the body. Now see, your body does not know the difference between the stress you get from seeing a tiger in the wild or being locked in by a snowstorm, or from having deadlines at work. In all of the examples, your body prepares itself to react. For the immediate danger that is the tiger, this reaction is what we call the fight-or-flight response and it works quite literally. You’re body will tense, your blood pressure rises, your lungs go to full capacity and adrenaline is pumping through your veins. In a rush to get yourself to safety, you run to the nearest house and lock yourself safely away from the threat on the other side of the door. You are safe again and the body starts to relax again. This is the time where you feel tired from running, you are hungry from burning off all the calories and you can catch your breath again.

In the second example, you have a problem that takes a while longer to solve: the snowstorm. You don’t have any food, you are cold and there is no way you are going to get out in the next few days. In this case, your body is fighting for your survival for the long run. It stores every bit of fat it can spare to make sure it can lasts as long as needed, creates cravings for food that will motivate you to find the food available and it increases your blood pressure to keep you from freezing to death. Also, your organs start to work slower to burn as little as possible and your cognitive capacities diminish: what do you need high-functioning planning skills for if you are only going to last for a few days? This is your body protecting you to live as long as needed for help to come and for the purpose of the article, we will call this the save-mode.

In the last example, your boss is the danger you are up against. Of course, running away could be an option here as well, but I don’t think it would be much appreciated. Since nothing is being done to solve the problem (or so your body thinks), you keep feeling tense and you feel your blood racing through your veins: the fight-or-flight kicks in. But for most of us, the problem is not only one deadline. There are several and they stretch out throughout the entire month. This is the point where the body recognizes the problem: it is a longterm problem and therefore, you have to go into the save-mode. The body stocks up every calorie that is not used immediately and stores it in your fat-reserves, but you keep being hungry. You start forgetting things and you seem to be able to process new information a bit slower than you would like.

The good

To start on a positive note, we are going to talk about eustress. Eustress is the good side of stress: it is the stress that drives you to achieve your goals, makes it possible for you to exercise and stay on top of your busy schedule and that gives you great ideas, right when you need them. To achieve this kind of stress, you need an environment that is safe and stimulates your motivation to do well, without pushing you into a corner or putting too much pressure on you. This kind of stress works incredibly well in short and/or extreme situations, especially in situations with a quick fix. It guides you to the solution and when the problem is gone, the stress disappears and everything goes back to normal.

The Bad

Now the more interesting part: the part that brings us into trouble. The bad kind of stress. Now keep in mind that the body does not see the difference in kinds of stress, only our mind does. The infamous ‘bad’ stress is caused by long periods of stress without relief in-between and in this society, that stress is probably stress from work, stress or relations with other people (or all three). The same thing happens as in the snowstorm situation: your body recognizes that it takes a while before the problem is solved and goes to save-mode. You start storing as many fat as possible, your cognitive capabilities decrease, your blood pressure rises and you keep being hungry. The problem here is that you are not in a physical situation and you do have the option of eating fats, sugars and you keep craving it. This will eventually clog up the arteries and add to the blood pressure (which is already getting higher because of the stress reaction itself). You will also be less likely to come up with brilliant solutions or creative plans, because your cognitive capacities are running low and you are just not as focused as you normally are. Since your brain does not feel it has the energy to spare to keep your mood up, you will also feel tired, angry, sad and more bad things. In a nature situation, this would be a signal of ‘you need to fix the situation’, but that is not so easily done in the life we live now.

What is also a danger is the fact that because your body saves up all the extra energy, your body doesn’t have it’s best defenses up against bacteria and other things that can make you feel sick. This makes you vulnerable to the flu, colds and the stress also causes your muscles to work overtime. Besides this being very bad for your health, it will likely add to your stress, which makes it really easy to end up in a vicious circle.

The Ugly

Since the previous paragraph was already a bit disconcerting, I promise: this one is not as bad as the title would suggest. However, there is an ugly part that I have to tell you about first and it is kind of an open door: there is no magical quick fix. I am not going to tell you that if you just buy a planner, everything will feel better and eating 2 pieces of fruit a day will relieve the tention you feel after just two days of doing so.

But there is hope! Relaxing and giving your body and mind time to heal is different for everyone, but there are some things that are likely to benefit (and at least not worsen the situation) you:

  • I know it is the most obvious of all things I will mention, but it is also the most important one: solve your problems if possible! Sometimes, everything can feel like to much and mostly, not everything will be fixable right away, but some things can be. Clean those annoying dishes that were in the back of your head now, text the person you are fighting with to make an appointment to talk about it and answer that annoying colleague now. Getting 2/6 of the problems out of the way seems like a little, but it can give you just a little space to breath.
  • After that: planning and writing down. It won’t help everything, but by writing your to-do-lists and your appointments down, you at least don’t have to remember them, so you make more space in your head to be creative and think of solutions. It also forces you to also do the harder things, because somehow, when it’s written, it’s real. Getting things done that are hard are likely to make you procrastinate less and make you feel proud of yourself. This also enforces endorphins and make you feel like you can do anything, so everything you have to do after that feels less scary. It will also make sure there is an ending in sight, because next Wednesday, that project will be fixed and that essay will be written. You create your own light at the end of the tunnel.
  • Exercise! If you know me a little, you know that I am not an active person and I avoid exercising if I can, but even I have to admit that it works. It helps first of all by getting some frustrations out, which will feel good, because let’s be honest: everyone wants to just punch somebody sometimes. But the second reason is the most important and it goes back to the bodily response mentioned earlier: the fight-or-flight response. If you think about it, most workouts are based on either getting out of a situation (cardio: running, cycling, etc.) or fighting the problem with strength (lifting, pushing, boxing, kicking). And since the body has no idea what your situation is, just that there is stress, you can let it think you fixed the problem! By running away or fighting, the body will ‘assume’ you are fixing the problem and therefore it needs less stress, so it will reduce the stress response by making endorphins, which make you feel your happy self again. To add, it is also a great way to burn of those fats that have been adding up in the stress response.
  • Yoga. I personally don’t do yoga, but I cannot say it is a bad idea to start. Beside getting the exercise mentioned above with all its perks, it also forces your muscles to work, so after the session they are forced to relax, since they’ve used up their strength. Another perk is that because it is all done with only the body as its instrument, you need to be really focused on the here and now, which forces you to stop thinking about your stressor.
  • Meditation. Not all stress can be resolved physically and a great way to deal with issues (at least for me) is to get out of my hectic head and clear everything that is going on there, before focussing on solutions. Meditation helps me to clear the headspace I have, so that I have the mental space and rest to tackle problems one at the time instead of getting overwhelmed by everything all at once. It often also helps me to put the severity of situations in perspective, because once I’m overwhelmed, every little problem feels like another huge disaster. That is why I personally like to do this before planning and at the end of each day to get everything off my chest and end my day relaxed, so that I optimise my sleeping time.
  • Which brings us to the next point: take care of yourself! Sleep enough, drink enough, eat well. By keeping your body as healthy as can be, you are giving your body the chance to work as optimally as possible under the circumstances. Since not everything will be used optimally, you can do with just a little bit more of the good stuff like vitamins and stuff, so that you still get decent amounts in your brain anyways. It will feel like time lost sometimes, but you will gain it back by regaining a lot of productivity during the hours that you do work.
  • Talking with friends. This can be about the problems, to get them off your chest, but also about other, happier things. Being in a group of friends will make you feel accepted and, since nature dictates that we are also group-animals and we only survive in groups, this will decrease stress, up your self-esteem and it will make you feel more safe. Also, the laughter you share will make you release more of those famous endorphins.
  • Read, Netflix, paint, sing, or do whatever relieves stress for you. What helps you will be different for everybody and can also change from time to time and in different situations, but it is important to do the things you love. Of course solving your problem will be the best way to reduce stress, but sometimes just focussing on something else will work, at least for some times in between, as well.
  • Force positivity. Like I mentioned, the save mode does not care about your mood (as it should, because what is the benefit of being happy in a snowstorm when you’re dying anyways). This is why you are likely to be down, tired, sad and/or irritable when you’ve been stressed for a while. This, however, will not help you with completing tasks, doing the hard parts, or motivating yourself to eat well and exercise, so this is the time to force yourself a little. Do you hear yourself talking down on yourself, being sarcastic or negative about your prospects in the future or anything like that? Force yourself to think of the most positive outcomes you can imagine! Of course, there is the danger of being disappointed if it doesn’t work out like that, but at least you gave yourself the option to try and you will have learned from it. It will help you get out of bed in the morning and make the best day as possible for yourself.
  • Dress to impress (yourself). Especially when you work/study from home, nothing is more compelling to staying in your sweatpants all day, but does that help you keep the positive mindset you need? No way. This doesn’t mean you need to wear a full face of make-up everyday and that you always need to look super fancy, but you do need to be able to see yourself in a positive future wearing this outfit. It is definitely a ‘dress for the job you want, not for the job you have’ kind of idea.

Some of these things might seems like small, insignificant things, but it can just give you that little extra kick to be the best you can be and reduce the stress by making you feel good about yourself and your future. This is important, since doubts and uncertainties about the future can often lead to huge stress, while the problem isn’t even there yet and by being more positive, those doubts will decrease instantly.

I hope you liked this article. Of course this is a very much slimmed down version of all the processes that influence stress (the good and the bad), but I hope that by making you understand more about the roots of stress in the body, you can tackle it better. However, if you do have stress that hinders you physically or mentally, you’d be best served by talking about it with either friends or a professional (like a counselor at your school, or a doctor or a psychologist). The most important thing is to be safe about it and not let it go to far!

Also, please follow me on InstagramPinterest and Twitter, or subscribe on the right and get an email every time I upload! And last, I am curious to know what helps you to limit stress in the first place or to get rid of it when you experience negative stress? And when do you feel like stress actually helped you achieve your goals? Please let me know in the comments below!

Lots of love,

Lisa

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Hi there! My name is Lisa and I am the author of Mind and Body Intertwined. I have a bachelor's and a master's degree in psychology. During my study, I found out how much the mind and the body are connected and it fascinated me, which is why I started my blog. Would you like to join me on this little corner of the world?

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