Some researchers believe stress isn’t caused by external forces or people or life events but by our response to these factors. Wait—what now? Isn’t it fair to say that certain circumstances can shake even the sturdiest foundation? Yes, to a point, but if you understand how to cope with stress more effectively, the overall theory is this resilience will serve you better in life.
Start With Stress Awareness
It’s important to note that not all stress feels bad. Actually, there are two types: distress and eustress.
- Distress. This is the negative condition most of us try to avoid and is frequently associated with many negative mental and physical complications such as anxiety, depression, exhaustion, and muscle tension.
- Eustress. This is the “good” stress, prompting excitement, focus, and improved performance. It’s a short-term burst that motivates and energizes us, and we don’t feel it wears us down or requires more coping mechanisms.
According to the therapy site BetterUp, there are six similarities between distress and eustress, which we provide verbatim:
- Both cause our bodies to release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
- They force us to leave our comfort zone and experience new things, like a change of any kind.
- We can experience mental and physical health problems from both of them.
- While distress can be long-term, it can also be on a short-term basis like eustress is.
- When we’re in either of these stressful situations, we have a fight or flight stress response.
- We can track both types of stress to evaluate how they make us feel.
Distress is usually the condition we have the most trouble managing. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there are three types of stress:
- Acute. We can feel flashes of this frequently throughout the day—someone cuts us off in traffic, or a boss gives us a rough time, or we have an argument with someone. Symptoms range from anxiety and irritability to a rapid heartbeat and sweating. They usually rise and subside quickly.
- Episodic acute. This usually develops because of feeling overwhelmed or intense pressure, mired down by extensive worry, or burdened by a number of things. The symptoms are similar to acute stress but are more intense and constant. Without proper intervention, more complex health conditions—such as depression, high blood pressure, and other problems—occur.
- Chronic. The APA notes that this form of stress is constant and persists over an extended period of time. It often develops because of substance use disorder, alcohol use disorder, family and marriage complications, any type of abuse, financial difficulties, trauma, and other serious issues. If not addressed and treated effectively, it causes severe health consequences.
Knowing how to adjust your stress response and keep circumstances from escalating is your first step toward effective management.
Coping With Stress More Successfully
Researcher, psychologist, and neuroscientist Derek Roger discovered that one of the primary ways to change your stress response is to stop ruminating. Also known as chronic worrying, this behavior involves becoming bogged down in negative emotions while rethinking the past or imagining the future. Rumination results in intense mental and physical reactions, leading to episodic or chronic stress.
In his Challenge for Change resilience program, Roger’s message is simple: “People tend to think that coping is managing to keep your head above water. Resilient people are presumably those who can hold their breath longer when the flood rises, but this is just surviving. Real resilience is knowing there’s no water to keep your head above.”
So if you’ve never thought about managing stress from this perspective, here are some of his recommendations for changing your stress response:
- Break the rumination cycle. Introducing movement helps stimulate “feel good” neurotransmitters. This might be something as simple as swinging your arms and clapping your hands, pulling a few weeds in the garden, or going for a short walk. Also try the anxiety-reducing technique of focusing on your five senses and notice what you hear, see, taste, touch, and feel.
- Close the loop. Ever notice how when you feel stressed, you rarely worry about just one thing but instead unravel everything? Try to center your focus on what you have responsibility over and how you can take action in that area. This helps you use strengths to regain control.
- Shift your perspective. Your feelings are valid, but sometimes, the amygdala—the part of your brain responsible for emotional regulation, fear response, and other vital processes—needs help calming down. Temper your stress response by practicing some breathing exercises, journaling, listening to upbeat music, or taking a walk outdoors for 10 minutes.
- Learn how to let go. No one wants to be told “Just let it go already!” when they’re upset, and it’s hard to do at first. However, you can learn how to accept a circumstance by first acknowledging it, and then what you’ll learn from it. This progressive action helps your mind and body no longer perceive a threat. Finally, determine if the situation requires action and if so, what kind.
Understandably, revising your stress response takes practice. If you need to learn more about why you react the way you do, Mental Health America offers a stress screener so you can check in with yourself and determine if you need to reach out to someone who can help.
Progressive Healing at Fair Oaks
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