by Javeria Khan, Mental Health Counselor
Close your eyes. What do you feel? Overwhelmed, accelerated heart-rate, racing thoughts, maybe a headache? These signs usually point to you feeling stress. The fast-paced life that we all live nowadays makes it almost impossible for anyone to not be stressed most of the time. We can all agree that being stressed is a feeling that we do not enjoy at all, and countless studies prove the many harmful effects continued stress can have both on mental and in some cases, physical health. As a graduate student in a Mental Health Counseling program, I was asked to do this activity in one of my classes and identify the feelings I felt (this was during an exam week, so it was good and bad timing for such an exercise). As we went around the classroom and listed the way each of us felt, I was surprised to note how similar most people’s experience is in the sensations they feel when stressed. Another interesting fact I noticed is that talking about stress made me feel even more stressed. Maybe reading about stress is stressing you out right now! But don’t worry, it’s not all bad, I promise!
So what is stress exactly? What function does it serve? Is there such a thing as good stress? And how can we effectively get over these feelings that make us uncomfortable, preoccupied, and unable to enjoy living in the moment? We can define stress quite simply as a set of emotional, cognitive (thoughts), and physical reactions to change. When we think of stress as just a reaction to change, or as our capacity to handle change, it becomes something that is not necessarily always bad. There are many changes that we undergo in our lives that can cause stress, from getting a new job, to getting married, or having a baby, but are viewed more as positive life-changing events than negative, distressing ones. So does that mean the stress we feel in these situations might actually be good? Yes, exactly!
Research examining this topic has found that stress levels can be described almost as an inverted U-shaped figure.
As pressure increases, so does performance, but only to a certain point, that is important to note! If we have relatively low levels of pressure or change, as we described earlier, our performance will also be low. We can use getting a new job as an example; when you apply for a new job, there is relatively low pressure, but let’s say you get called in for an initial interview, pressure automatically increases, as does your interest in being well prepared to increase your chances of getting the job! You would probably describe yourself as stressed, but also excited, hopeful, and looking forward to making a good impression. This type of stress is called eustress. Eustress, or positive stress, is motivating, increases focus, is usually short-term, and feels exciting. At its peak, it helps ensure best performance in the face of change.
On the other hand, there is distress (the name probably makes more sense now!), or negative stress which is when pressure or change effects one to such a point that performance begins to fall. Distress can be characterized as short to long term, anxiety-provoking, decreasing performance, feeling unpleasant, and can lead to mental and/or physical problems. Distress can be caused by any number of stressors in one’s life and is difficult to objectively list as everyone experiences different levels of stress in different situations but some universal examples of distress causing issues include the death of a loved one, certain financial difficulties, health problems, etc. Everyone experiences life experiences that may be examples of eustress or distress, but what are some ways to work through and decrease the negative stress from taking over one’s life?
There are so many ways to destress that people find useful, (different than distress, note spelling!) but I have found a couple of things that are easy to remember and practice, do not require a lot of time, can be incorporated any time in the day (waiting in line at the grocery store, driving, etc.), and always help me when I feel overwhelmed! Being mindful is an effective and useful technique that can help you destress. The term is tossed around quite often and you may have heard, but are not quite sure of its meaning. It’s simple actually. Being mindful takes anywhere from a few seconds or minutes. All you have to do is focus on the moment, take a couple of deep breaths in and out, and let yourself become aware of your surroundings, and internally, examine your emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Feel them, acknowledge them, and accept them. It may seem weird at first but with practice it will become easier and feel better! With that, try to think of three things in that moment you are grateful for. Gratitude is a powerful tool that not many people utilize and take advantage of. Can you believe showing gratitude is scientifically proven to reduce stress, increase productivity, and make you happier?! Now that is something we could all use a bit more of in our lives, am I right?
My last recommendation for destressing might take few minutes, but is guaranteed to be effective! It may seem silly, but go watch a video of puppies making babies laugh. I promise you, it is foolproof. You may not even like puppies, or kids for that matter, but it will still work. I’ve done it, while trying my very best to stay stressed, and I am happy to report it was impossible!
I hope learning a little bit about positive and negative stress and coping methods will be as helpful for you as it was for me in making each day a little less di-stressful and a little more eustressful and happier! What are some techniques that help you destress? Let us know in the comments below!