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Stress can be friend, foe or frenemy

A lot of people wish they never experienced stress, but stress is part of life. Stress gives us impetus and urgency to act, to get something done.

Stress is a healthy response, up to a point

Stress is a physiological response to an emotional trigger when we sense something needs to happen – have you ever noticed how you can have something to do, yet you don’t act until there is a sense of urgency, often driven from a fear of not getting it done?

Up to a point, stress heightens our emotional, physical and mental states, narrowing our focus and channelling our attention to the task at hand – we’re motivated, physically stimulated and less likely to be distracted, and so better able to get that job done.

Eustress = Positive Stress

Eustress, is a stress that feels positive for you. You believe you can achieve the objective or deal with the situation you face, and are often positively drawn towards doing so by your own emotions – for example, striving towards a project outcome, rushing to clean-up for a friend coming to dinner, or training beyond your comfort zone to gain a new level of fitness.

We find our ideal level of eustress when we are immersed in the moment, completely focussed on the task at hand, responding in real-time to our environment – this is also known as Flow. At its best, eustress helps us adapt, cope and grow as a person – to become more resilient within our environment.

Distress = Negative Stress

You feel distress when the challenges in your environment (stressors) make you feel you cannot meet the objective or successfully deal with the situation you face. This is the feeling of being out of control. Examples include impossible deadlines, managing a household with insufficient time, money, or experience, or trying to maintain a disintegrating relationship.

When we are distressed, we feel out of control, and thus emotionally and/or physically unsafe. Ancient fight, flight or freeze responses prioritise our immediate survival, feeling with our emotions and reacting with our bodies (including our mouths)! This response literally shuts down our thinking brain, prioritising action over thought.

Distress shuts down our thinking brain, and ALSO automatically increases our breathing- and heart- rates, blood pressure and blood flow to our limbs. It shuts down our digestive and waste excretion systems; our cell repair processes, and our immune and reproductive systems. In a normal environment, or where we are well-adjusted to our lifestyle, we de-stress naturally – we return to a state of equilibrium, where these rest, digest and repair processes come back online.

To manage our lives, we need to manage our stress

Our minds and bodies did not evolve to be constantly distressed, which is why sustained stress is associated with emotional ill-health, premature ageing, and chronic disease. Prolonged distress is so unhealthy because we are generating and exposing ourselves to sustained chemical, emotional and metabolic imbalances: we become increasingly irrational, driven by negative emotions; our organs get starved of oxygen; we stop breaking down food, and our body gradually becomes over-run by toxins and foreign agents, such as bugs and viruses.

In emotional distress, we often make quick decisions that get us out of immediate danger, but are not the best decisions for the long term. We might react by doing something that is hurtful, saying something blatantly untrue or that does not represent the reality of the situation. Reacting this way might get us off the hook right now, but it can set-off a chain-reaction of events that make our future more complicated, unpleasant and – ironically – more stressful!

Stop, listen and learn from your emotions

When you feel stress; when you feel unpleasant emotions, it is for good reason. Negative emotions tell you that something about your situation is not meeting your needs as a person – that does not mean that someone else is wrong, however it does mean that for you something is not right. If you’re feeling distressed, try this dialogue by yourself, or work through it with a friend or partner:

1. What emotion/s am I feeling?

2. What is that telling me I need in this situation?

3. What in this situation is preventing that need being met?

4. So, what action can I take to positively change the situation?

5. How would I feel if those things changed?

Successfully resolving stress – resolving a tension between you and your environment – often

begins with asking questions, then exploring and reflecting on your responses. If you’re feeling chronic stress in your life, consider seeking help from a coach, counsellor or psychologist.

P.S. Trauma is an extremely distressing experience that completely overloads our central nervous system, affecting the way we process and recall memories – and subsequently function in our lives. It is not the subject of this article, and requires specific professional assistance.

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