Are you stressed? For many people the answer to this question is yes. The combination of their daily hassles and some big life events is harder to deal with than they want. This second piece, “harder than they want,” is the key to stress because how you think and feel about these hassles and life events determines how stressful they are. In other words, one person’s enjoyment of cooking is another person’s daily hassle.
Just as we can see in this example that cooking can either be a hobby or a hassle, stress itself comes in many forms, and not all of it is bad. In this article, I will help you better understand stress and provide 5 tips for dealing with it.
Threat vs. Challenge
This part is a bit academic, so stay with me for a second: Stress comes in two forms, challenge and threat. When we typically think of stress, we think of the bad kind of stress known as “threat.” We experience threat when what we’re dealing with is more demanding than we are prepared for. In the cooking example above, trying to get the kids breakfast on their way out the door, when you’re rushing to get to work, can create a threat type of stress experience that leaves you feeling overwhelmed or exhausted.
On the other hand, sometimes we rise to the task-at-hand or push ourselves to achieve something that’s out of our comfort zone. This is the good kind of stress known as “challenge.” We experience challenge when we are ready and raring to go to meet life’s demands and it leaves us feeling spent but exhilarated. Continuing our example from above, throwing a dinner party for 10 and having the time and energy to prepare multiple dishes for your guests would likely be a challenge type of stress experience.
In both threat and challenge, life is demanding, but in threat we don’t have the energy or focus to be able to keep our head above water. In challenge, we have plenty of energy and focus and can tread water or even paddle along with ease. Note: This isn’t just important conceptually. Threat stress has a negative impact on our cardiovascular health but challenge doesn’t.
Acute vs. Chronic Stress
As you can see not all stress is bad, but long-term, chronic stress of any kind can overwhelm us, make our lives more difficult, and negatively affect our health. In his wonderful book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky provides the example of a zebra fleeing from a lion as a short-term form of stress that the zebra deals with in the moment. The chase only lasts minutes at most. When the zebra has escaped, then the threat is over and the zebra doesn’t think about it again. This is short-term, or “acute” stress.
We humans, on the other hand, have bills to pay, family drama to worry about, and bad bosses that make our lives more difficult. We can get stuck thinking about these things or fail to deal with them in the moment and be left to face them day after day. These are examples of long-term, or “chronic,” stress. Unlike zebras, who never experience chronic stress, humans are at risk for negative health effects from chronic stress. It can contribute to weight gain, depression, fertility problems, and cardiovascular disease, among other things. Luckily, there are a numbers of things that we can do to prevent chronic stress or reduce its effects.
Stress Reduction Tips
What are some ways to deal with stress? Here are 5 tips:
Social support – Social support is critical to both buffering stress and coping with it. Spending time with family and friends who enjoy and who support you can lessen the impact of stressful events and help you work through them when they arise.
Values / what’s important – Knowing what’s important to you can also help buffer your stress. Research has shown that thinking about things you value, such as your family, religion, nature, community, etc. can reduce the effects of stressful situations on both your mind and your body.
Strong diet and lifestyle foundation – Having a healthy diet and lifestyle foundation helps your body stay resilient in the face of stress. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet, getting plenty of sleep, and limiting screen time and blue light all help your body stay strong and recover faster in times of stress.
Exercise to deal with the physical effects – Going for a run, a walk around the block, or to the gym among the many forms of exercise that you can do daily or have in your back pocket to use at any time during the day when stress hits. As I mentioned above, zebras don’t get ulcers because they run in the face of a lion attack. When your personal “lion” attacks, try getting out and moving. Your body will thank you.
Mindfulness meditation – Turning your attention to your breath, sitting in silence and noticing your surroundings, or visualizing a calm place that you’d like to be are all ways to bring mindfulness to your life and reduce your stress. These techniques quiet our mind, put us in touch with ourselves and our environment, and help our body’s systems slow down and do their job unencumbered.