Today, more than ever, we are experiencing record levels of stress at work, home and in our everyday lives.
We are bombarded with messages from the media telling us that, as a society, we are more stressed than ever before. Sitting in commuter traffic is making your blood levels rise. Thinking about your credit card debt makes you break out in a sweat. The state of the economy has you concerned, and you’re anxious about losing your job/ partner, health or any other important thing in your life.
What’s more, we have become conditioned to think that stress is a bad thing, that’s it’s harmful to us and toxic for our health. And it is true. While the ‘fight or flight’ mode is a physiological response that can save our lives, being in a state of constant stress, where your adrenal levels are raised can lead to high blood pressure, weight gain and eventually wear and tear on your organs.
When you’re chronically stressed you’re more likely to experience irritability, anxiety, depression, headaches and insomnia. But what if I told you that not all stress is created equal, and certain forms of stress can actually be very beneficial for you?
The Three Levels of Stress
According to Professor Bruce McEwen’s article in Aeon, there are three levels of stress:
- ‘Good stress’ involves taking a chance on something one wants, like interviewing for a job or school, or giving a talk before strangers, and feeling rewarded when successful.
- ‘Tolerable stress’ means that something bad happens, like losing a job or a loved one, but we have the personal resources and support systems to weather the storm.
- ‘Toxic stress’ is something so bad that we don’t have the personal resources or support systems to navigate it, something that could plunge us into mental or physical ill health and throw us for a loop.
So how do you handle your own levels of stress and use them as a force for good, or better yet avoid the ‘toxic’ stress and welcome in more ‘good stress’? Most people have heard of the “fight or flight” response I mentioned above, a vital part of our nervous system, the way in which the body reacts to stress or danger. Many, however, have never heard of the “rest and digest” response, where the nervous system activates the more tranquil functions of the body; those that help us maintain a healthy, long-term balance.
Using Stress for Positive Good
While a little bit of stress can help motivate you to achieve things like hitting a deadline for an important project, and bungy jumping off a bridge can raise your adrenal levels through the roof and make you feel on a high afterwards, the less time we spend in this mode, the better. Although it makes us alert and better able to respond to the challenges ahead, it takes a huge toll on our bodies after a while and can lead to adrenal fatigue or burnout.
I came close to having a mild form of burnout in 2013 when I was self publishing my book, The Suitcase Entrepreneur. At first it was exciting to work on the launch of my first ever book that I’d worked so hard to write. I used a positive stress to achieve so much and be ridiculously productive. I felt on a high and in flow. As time wore on, I was juggling so many facets of publishing the book that I simply couldn’t switch off. I was working really long days and forgoing exercise and time out just to make this thing a bestseller. As a result, mid way through my book tour, I realized I was only getting a few hours sleep a night, I wasn’t handling the project as well as I could have, and I certainly wasn’t enjoying or laughing as much as I should have been.
Once I recognized this and started to take more time off, get plenty of fresh air and exercise and set boundaries, I felt better. But my body took months to recover, and for some people it can take years. So anything we can do to keep ourselves in the “rest and digest” mode as much as possible is worth the effort, since our long-term health may depend on it!