Stress – are you in Eustress or Distress?

Stress Eustress and Distress
Stress is a by-product of living. To live without stress is not possible nor is it desirable. Not desirable you may ask? Yes. Because we have 2 different kinds of stress. Eustress and distress...

Eustress and distress…

  • Distress – harmful stress caused by negative & destructive emotions
  • Eustress – good, positive stress (the kind that sets you in motion & taking action)

Stress can be defined as “The non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it” or “the rate of wear & tear within the body” according to Dr Hans Selye who was the first person to undertake noteworthy research on the topic. Stress can be interpreted in different ways by different people, and typically shows up as nervous tension, depression, anxiety, emotional disturbances & the like.

Then we have stressors from the environment (heat, cold, noise, crowds, traffic) physiological (poverty, trauma, drugs, alcohol, medication, caffeine, family problems, exercise) & emotional stress (emotional neglect, abuse, low self-image, daily life pressures) – adding this to the demands of everyday life, work, family, social commitments can place huge pressure on your body.

American psychologist Walter Cannon termed the phrase ‘fight or flight’ in 1915 after researching animals in stressful situations. ‘Fight or flight’ is used to describe your body’s response to stress. His theory was that when exposed to a perceived threat (note ‘perceived’ – it doesn’t even have to be real) your body prepares to either fight or flee from the threat. Within seconds of the threat, changes are happening within your body. The stress triggers hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, testosterone, oestrogen, catecholamine) that is released into your bloodstream by your sympathetic nervous system (The sympathetic nervous system directs the body’s rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations. A flash flood of hormones boosts the body’s alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles) This is known as the ‘alarm stage’.

Your body responds to eustress & distress in the same way. For example, sweaty hands & shortness of breath happen when you are excited (eustress) and anxious (distress) The difference is how you perceive the stress. Eustress is perceived in a positive way creating positive feelings, and distress is perceived in a negative/threatening way. Both are demanding on your body. Even eustress can be overwhelming and be detrimental to your health.

Your body instinctively tries to stay in balance (homeostasis) immediately after the stress effect and starts to restore the balance of hormones in an attempt to adapt or fight the stress. This is known as the ‘adaptation/resistance’ stage.

If the stress persists, your body’s energy is depleted and it cannot resist or adapt to the ongoing stress. Your body becomes exhausted and you are now vulnerable to burnout and disease. This the ‘exhaustion’ stage.

Symptoms of stress can show up in a manner of ways:

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Memory loss
  • Incapable of concentrating
  • Poor judgement
  • Negative outlook in life
  • Anxious/racing thoughts
  • Relentless worrying

Emotional Symptoms:

  • Moodiness
  • Irritability/short tempered
  • Inability to relax
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feelings of loneliness/isolation
  • Depression/general unhappiness

Physical Symptoms:

  • Aches & pains
  • Constipation or diarrhoea
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds
  • Chest pain

Behavioural Symptoms:

  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Changes in sleeping patterns-sleeping too much or too little
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using drugs/alcohol/cigarettes to relax
  • Nervous habits (nail biting/pacing)

Because stress to some degree is unavoidable in our lives, we need to learn to handle it effectively. While increased exposure to stress can cause illness & disease, the body can also adapt to stress physiologically (your body becomes proficient in maintaining homeostasis) and psychologically (your body’s coping mechanisms improve)

“If you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry about it”

There are certain things we have no control over in life, and worrying about these things stops us from effectively dealing with the things that we can. Stress management is important therefore, for everyone. Stress management includes:

  • Self management – the development of skills & characteristics that will strengthen you in stressful situations, that will decrease the impact of the stressors. These include having a positive self image, not jumping to conclusions, effective communication, time management, emotional stability & self control, decisiveness, courage.
  • Positive thoughts, good nutrition, regular exercise, relaxation & rest can all be used to avoid stressors from building up to a break point.

Exercise is a stressor in itself, breaking down muscle tissue to build new, stronger tissue. But it is also a stress releaser, having both health & psychological improvements on your body.

Regular exercise lowers your resting heart rate & blood pressure, and muscle tension. Physical fitness boosts your body’s resistance to illness & increases it’s ability to cope with changing temperatures. Self-esteem, mental awareness, cognitive functioning & problem solving are also increased. When you exercise, neurotransmitters called endorphins are released which are your body’s natural tranquilizers – which can result in a feeling of calm & relaxation for hours post workout.

Rest is equally important for your body as this is when your body rebuilds itself from the effects of exercising to stronger levels. Everyone has a different tolerance level for physical stress. When under stress, your adrenal cortex releases the hormone cortisol that stimulates recovery. Over-training fatigues this adrenal cortex, reducing the amount of cortisol released. In some cases of excessive stress, cortisol production may stop entirely, leaving your body unable to recover until the stress is removed. Once your body has reached this stage of exhaustion it may take weeks of rest before damaged tissue heals and the adrenal cortex is able to release normal quantities of cortisol again. Relaxation for your body is a must as it is one of the most effective ways of reducing stress. Take time out to do an enjoyable hobby, read, go for walks, spend time in the garden, or do some yoga & stretching.   

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