Contrary to popular belief all stress isn’t bad
Too little stress is problematic and can lead to lack of motivation and depression while too much stress can lead to overwhelm and anxiety. The middle ground is where we experience a healthy level of stress which provides focus and motivation. This state is known as eustress. Eustress allows us to move outside our comfort zone just enough so that we can grow without tipping into overwhelm. Whilst in this state we are challenged by new or different experiences, but we also experience feelings of excitement, possibility, motivation, satisfaction and flow. Consider yourself as goldilocks. You don’t want too much or too little stress, you want what is just right.
“Just right” stress is helpful rather than harmful
What is “just right” depends on your environment and constitution and it is helpful to understand the basic physiology so we can recognize our stress responses. Essentially your body is designed to optimize your chances of survival in the face of threats – it goes into a state of fight or flight. The heart rate accelerates, blood flow is constricted, muscles strengthen and tense and non-essential systems like sex drive and digestion are shut down. Focus narrows to the threat, effectively compromising the part of the brain that is responsible for decision making and executive functioning. You do not need to make considered decisions when you are under threat – you just need to act. This reorganization of resources is an effective SHORT-TERM strategy the body employs. It was never meant to stay that way. Once the threat has passed, your system returns to a state of rest and restore and regular functioning occurs. Chronic stress is when your system does not return to a state of restoration. Unfortunately, what this means in our modern world is that we are often responding to threats like our life depends upon it when potentially we just need to change the way we identify and respond to the stressors in our life. Rather than reacting to challenges and deadlines like our lives depend on it, we can break the cycle of stress and experience more eustress and calm.
Our top 5 practices for turning stress to eustress
1. Recognize your stress pattern to catch it early
Identify one of your common stress triggers and investigate your stress patterns. Identify how you respond – your physical sensations, thoughts, emotions and what you say and do in response to the trigger. Do you get really tired and grumpy? Do you make mistakes? How long does it take before you start to get really stressed? One week, two? Notice your patterns with curiosity and non-judgement. This helps you to recognize stress and actively manage it.
2. Practice relaxed breathing
Give yourself permission to set aside 3 minutes several times a day to return your breathing to a relaxed state. Find a comfortable spot with your back straight and body as relaxed as you can and put your phone’s timer on. Simply notice your breathing and consciously breathe in and out through your nose. Your goal is simply to rest your attention on the breath and make that breath as slow, smooth and relaxed as is comfortable. Let your body melt in the process.
3. Manage your self-talk
Stop and observe what you are saying to yourself when you are stressed. This is your self-talk and your practice is to notice it. Your job is not to assess whether it is right or wrong but simply to label it as helpful or unhelpful. If it is helpful (encouraging) – keep it. If it is unhelpful (critical or negative) consider a more encouraging statement that you could tell yourself instead.
4. Work out what is within your control
Map out the situation that concerns and stresses you. Write down what you can control, what you can influence and what you need to accept or walk away from. Work out where best to put your energy to manage your stress levels.
5. Schedule and prioritize relaxation and fun
When you are busy put in your diary a scheduled time for relaxation. It seems counterproductive but it will enable you to return refreshed. Whether it is a walk in a park, a catch up with friends or just sitting on the couch with no responsibilities, put the time in your diary. Be strong – treat it like a non-negotiable appointment. No one gets to the end of their lives and wishes they worked more!
Turning stress into eustress takes commitment to the practices along with time and patience but the rewards of more energy, focus and motivation are worth it.