Is there such a thing as good stress you may ask? The answer is a resounding, “Yes.” If we did not experience any stress, what would our daily life look like? Perhaps, on the surface, it may seem divine to be stress-free until we realize that we go about all our activities at one speed without any extra drive for one activity over another. This is where “good” stress comes in.
To experience stress is to be human (much to the dismay of some of my patients who initially consult to “remove” their stress). When we experience physical or emotional stress, the brain registers this information and quickly dispatches the right chemicals in our body to equip us with a burst of energy to help us to deal with the stressful situation. Experts on stress agree that moderate amounts of stress help heighten our senses, memory, heart function, and resistance to infection in order to help us perform tasks more efficiently. In the absence of “good” stress, our body and mind may not be equipped with the much-needed fight and flight response often needed to cope with danger and stressful situations.
Well, if some stress is good, then what makes it bad? The answer lies in the quantity and chronicity of stress. Stress becomes bad when a person experiences high levels of stress for an extended period of time, sometimes for weeks and months. When such stress persists over long periods of time, it has been found to be associated with high blood pressure, compromised immune system, depression, heart disease and asthma. In short, having chronic high-level stress puts us at physical and emotional risk.
Picture A Pressure Cooker
Frequently, I use this analogy with clients to help them conceptualize what contributes to chronic high levels of stress and the outcome if not dealt with properly. Picture a pressure cooker:
- Ingredients are placed inside the pressure cooker periodically to represent factors in your life (e.g., work, finances, relationships, illness, family)
- We cook these ingredients with a little help from stove heat. Chemicals in our body (e.g., cortisol, adrenaline) act like heat to stimulate us in order to cope with different stressors.
- Regulating stress means that we have to make sure we cook the ingredients properly without having the pot “boil over.” This is often achieved by releasing steam periodically as we do in our daily lives by tackling problems and resolving them.
- However, when there are too many ingredients added to the pot and the heat is on too “high” without adequate amounts of steam released, there is a great risk the pressure cooker will explode. This explosion is a metaphor to represent what could go wrong emotionally and physically when we feel overwhelmed.
What To Do
When you feel that your pressure cooker is getting to full or about ready to explode, taking pause to consider the following may help you manage your stress in a more adaptive way:
- Consider why you are feeling extremely stressed. Did you reach your personal limit and had difficulties saying, “No?” Were responsibilities thrust upon you whether you liked it or not and you feel stuck with them?
- Are there creative ways to take things out of the pot by re-prioritizing your goals, delegating some of your responsibilities to others, or by soliciting help? For example, can you carpool to help reduce the stress from driving? Can you limit the number of accounts or clients you accept at work?
- Do you need readjust or re-evaluate your expectations regarding your responsibilities so that you are only taking on what is realistic for your personal limits?
- Finally, it’s important consider self-care. When we are busy and on the go, especially when we feel very stressed, we may not necessarily take the time to take care of ourselves. Yet, basic self-care makes a difference in terms of how we manage stress. Therefore, consider whether you are sleeping, eating, and resting enough. Sleep-deprivation, hunger, and tiredness can lower your threshold and increase your reactivity to even moderate stress.
Evaluating your level of stress and monitoring the pressure-cooker could make a difference in maintaining levels of “good” and “bad” stress.