11 Mar Stress: the good, the bad, and the ugly
Stress is an inevitable part of our day-to-day life. For some of us, the daily routine starts at 5am. Between work, children, appointments, and ideal workouts at the gym, it’s common for a regular day to extend past 7pm. Beyond this, let’s not forget the phone calls, voicemails, emails, outstanding texts, and constant social media updates. These are all factors that keep life hectic. Since each of these factors require our brain’s activity and energy, it seems as though our mind and body doesn’t actually have time to rest and recharge.
Please note that when I talk about stress, it is in a generic sense, understanding that individuals experience, tolerate, and respond to stress in very different and unique ways.
Thinking back to a time when I had confront the fact that the amount of stress in my life, I couldn’t help but admit how unhealthy it was. I was desperate to learn how to manage with it more effectively, because no matter how much I tried simplify and tone down my busy, hectic life, the stress would always creep back up. I want to share a bit of what I’ve learned with you.
Not all stress is bad and stress in itself has beneficial qualities.
What?!?! Stick with me for a second. Stress serves a purpose. It allows us to assess dangers, problem solve, prepare for and adapt to new situations. The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child further explored the differences between types of stress and identified 3 different types. While these definitions have been established for children, they unquestionably maintain relevancy for adults:
This form of stress is short-lived. These experiences are everyday occurrences that lead to anticipation or tension being present in our lives. Examples of positive stresses in an adult’s life may include: to-do lists, losing car keys, meeting new people, deadlines, crossing the border, or receiving test results from the doctor.
Positive stress causes minor physiological changes in the body, including an increase in heart rate and changes in hormone levels. Despite these changes, our bodies are able to quickly return to normal after the stressful situation passes. This stress provides us with the motivation or lack of motivation contributing to efficacy and efficiency.
A personal example follows – I recently got a call for a job interview. Once I accepted the invitation, my stress level increased, which I was able to channel into effective preparation for the interview. After the interview, I took a moment to reflect how my experienced stress actually worked to motivate me. The experienced stress served a purpose. It wasn’t too intense, but rather, it adequately prepared me.
This form of stress refers to adverse, unexpected, or unwanted experiences that are more intense, but still relatively short-lived. Examples of such circumstances include: natural disasters, a frightening car accident, an argument with your partner, ongoing tension at work, etc. Some researchers place divorce and death under tolerable stress, however, in my work, I have come to see these two life events as extremely grey areas due to how immensely different they can affect people.
For children, tolerable stress can usually be overcome with the consistent care and support of connected caregivers. Tolerable stress can shift into positive stress and benefit the children as caregivers are able to model problem solving, resilience, and self-soothing.
When looking at how adults navigate through tolerable stress, there isn’t much difference! Adults also need to experience strong, consistent support from others, often needing to be reminded and shown healthier ways to respond to stress. In order to overcome painful situations and those unexpected moments of stress, an established support network is crucial. When this is achieved, stressful situations subside and people will find themselves developing resilience and courage through their hardships and struggles.
One way that I regulate my stress is to connect with my godchildren (two boys). Their enjoyment of me playing with them is very contagious. In these moments, I am very present with them and as I enjoy myself, the stresses of the hard day often melt away. I would not say that they are gone, but I have a reprieve and I shift my focus to playing in the present rather then worrying about the past.
This form of stress results from prolonged exposure to negative experiences that for extended periods of time. Examples leading to toxic stress are: abuse, neglect, criticism, hostility, going without basic needs being met, etc.
Without support, children are unable to effectively manage this toxic stress. Over time, a child’s energy becomes depleted from trying to cope and manage with the levels of consistent stress, rather than expected child development (cognitive, physical, and emotional). This disturbance can negatively impact a child’s functioning in academic, social, and familial environments.
In adulthood, toxic stress can appear in the above examples, but furthermore, can show up within the workplace or classroom, home life, and most commonly, within dysfunctional relationships. When such stress occurs, we often attempt to rationalize it, telling ourselves to “suck it up” or that “others have it worse.” We may also try to minimize by telling ourselves that “it’s not that bad” and “I’ve dealt with worse.” We often underestimate the toxic impact of such environments or experiences because we are used to them, they are familiar, and unfortunately, all too comfortable. Without acknowledging the toxic levels of stress present in our lives, it is impossible to combat it! The old cliché of “we must know our enemy in order to defeat it” comes to mind…
Everyone Responds Differently to Stress
The ways we respond to stress are determined in childhood. As children, we are sponges, soaking up everything we hear and see. We witness how our caregivers, siblings, and peers deal with stress. When experiencing our own stress, we begin to notice how, or if, others respond to our distress.
For those of us with supportive parents, a consistent presence was undeniably felt through the scraped knees, broken toys, and devastating teenager break-ups. We learned that we were worthy and deserving of support and were blessed to experience it first hand, when we needed it most.
For those of us with parents who (for whatever reason) were unable to support us, we found our own way to survive. We were left to face our stressful situations alone, which often left us exposed to the stressful circumstances for longer periods of time.
While we are not here to blame our parents, it is important to understand the detrimental impact of not having the support we required during those moments. We cannot change the past, but we have every opportunity to learn about our behaviours and develop healthier patterns for ourselves which we can model for others around us.
Please note that in our desperation to cope with stress, we often turn to whatever we can get our hands on to help us feel better. For some, that may be increasing the use of alcohol, tobacco, or illicit substances. For others, this may look like binge-eating. For others yet, the temptation to work harder or longer hours can arise, impulsively act out sexually, or completely withdraw from all relationships. While we believe that these actions will assist us in dealing with our stress, the long term results prove otherwise. Coping in these ways will only lead to further emotional distress, increased anxiety or self-blame, fearfulness, lack of productivity, etc. So, when faced with stress, let’s look at what we CAN do to strengthen our toolbox:
What to Do:
Nature is your friend
Stanford University studies have proven the benefits of nature walks to positive mental health. Researchers have found that brain activity slows, allowing for our thoughts to slow and our bodies to calm. In other words, nature walks have actually been shown to decrease anxiety and reported stress for people.
Positive Support Networks to Lean On
There’s nothing better than having a safe, non-judgmental friend to hear you out and provide feedback and insight to your situation. Loneliness can quickly turn into a toxic stressor, and what better way to combat it then with another’s kindness and understanding. Sometimes, seeking the confidential privacy of a counsellor’s office may prove to be beneficial, especially if you are finding it difficult to trust those in your world. Counsellors are specially trained to assist in navigating through stressful situations, whereas our friends and family members (despite their best intentions) might not be the most helpful!
Developing Mindfulness – Simply Notice
Mindfulness is the newest, sexiest craze within the counselling world. The concept originated in Buddhism and has been adopted by psychology as a personal development tool. It encourages us to become aware of ourselves both internally and externally within our surroundings. It is a way to live fully in the present moment, a process of reflecting on our experience as it happens. This slowing down allows us to respond more and react less to changes we may encounter. It also provides an opportunity for greater understanding, wisdom, and perspective as we slow down our lives, taking time to simply notice. Notice what you see around you. Notice what you can touch around you. Notice what you can smell, hear, and taste around you. Take the time to notice.
Another important tool for stress reduction is deep breathing. Slow, deep breathing actually calms our activated nervous system, allowing more oxygen to enter our blood stream, and subsequently, reach our brain, which regulates the rest of our body. Give it a shot. Breathe in slowly, hold for 5 seconds, and exhale slowly, through your mouth, as if you are blowing out birthday candles. Try 10 deep breaths like this, and notice your experienced levels of stress begin to diminish.