Stress? Who needs it? You! Here’s why “stress” isn’t always a dirty word – and how you can make it work for you.

Why Do We Have Stress?

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Stress evolved to help us survive, and to thrive.

Everyone – including the medical community – knows that too much stress can have some pretty dire consequences.

Depression and anxiety can result from ongoing, chronic stress. So can high blood pressure, digestive disorders and even a stroke or heart attack. A stressed-out attitude threatens our relationships and sometimes, our jobs.

With all these negative side effects, why do we experience stress at all? Isn’t it contrary to happiness – and in fact, to our very survival?

Not necessarily. A little stress can sharpen your senses, alert you to danger and cause you to make changes that can actually help in the long run.

What Stress Is…and Why it Aids Survival

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The adrenaline response can be life-saving.

“Stress” is both an emotional and physical reaction to something we perceive to be a threat. We stress out as much about the possibility of a loved one leaving us as we do a car swerving unannounced into our lane.

The experience of stress sharpens our five senses, makes us more alert and pumps adrenaline into our bodies so that we can either flee from danger, or attack it head-on.

Likewise, if we experience too much physical stress, we’re being given a signal to lighten the load and find a more efficient, less dangerous way to do things.

From an evolutionary standpoint, stress exists to help us – not to make us miserable.

So What’s the Problem?

If stress is a biological positive, why do we experience it so negatively? The answer is in the structure of modern society and day-to-day living.

When we receive that rush of adrenaline, there’s just nothing to do with it. There’s no release. We don’t punch our boss when he threatens us with termination. (And don’t think you’re the only person who’s fantasized about this.) When facing a presentation where we have to do all the talking, we can’t run away from it as we would, say, an oncoming warring tribe.

Our stress factors tend to be far less tangible, and more internalized, than the issues our ancestors faced. So instead of “using up” the adrenaline and epinephrine our bodies are being flooded with, we’re left to stew in them, so to speak. And that’s where the physical and emotional damage comes in.

The Right Ways to Respond to Stress

It isn’t all bad news. In fact, you can actually make modern-day stress work for you, rather than paralyzing you. Here’s how:

  • Exercise. Use up those “go, go, go” chemicals in a way that will not only help our bodies to calm down, but will also get you into shape. In fact, some stress may simply be due to inactivity, experts say.
  • Look inward. Chronic stress that you just can’t put your finger on may actually be pointing to issues you deep-down know are going on, but are afraid to address. You do have the tools to correct imbalances in your life. If you don’t, do your research or better yet, reach out to a professional. Your life will be better than ever once you take a deep look at your underlying issues.
  • Start saying “no.” Many people stress out because they feel that they need to give, give, give. And in some cases, they do (to one’s children, for example). But those quick, stressed-out feelings of anger when saying “sure, I’ll do it” yet one more time are a red flag that you’re doing too much. Slow down, and in the meantime, teach yourself a very good skill: setting limits and putting yourself first sometimes.
  • Start a self-soothing program, such as yoga or meditation. We all need periods of quiet; times that we really aren’t thinking about anything. But today’s society tends to look down on any downtime, which labels us as lazy or unambitious. Untrue! Everyone needs “time off” not just from doing, but thinking and working things out. Your stress may be a signal that you need to take time for you, a skill we should all re-learn…and one that tends to make us healthier in the long run.

When Stress Hurts

Of course, if your stress is severely impacting your life, you need to do something about it – now. Sometimes we feel we should just “power through” our stress. That’s not always true.

Don’t suffer. Start right now to find ways to reduce your overall stress level. This may involve getting away from it all for a week or two (if your job allows it) and taking a fishing trip, going camping or simply spending easy days on a “stay-cation.” Or it could be reducing your caffeine intake, investigating herbs that soothe the body and mind or learning breathing relaxation techniques.

Stress can get out of hand. Your mission is to discover just how much stress is the right amount for you to stay sharp, without going overboard into a life of discomfort. Experiment. Find easygoing pursuits that put a smile on your face. Shorten your work schedule if you can. Spend more time with loved ones and less time mired in toxic associations. That happy medium does exist. Here’s to finding it, and uncovering a happier you.