Good Stress vs. Bad Stress … learn the difference
When we tell our friends we feel stressed out, it’s usually followed by a story of mishap, time pressure and things gone wrong. Even though we describe stress as “stuff happening to us” (traffic, crying children, an aloof partner or a lost client) stress is actually your reaction to these events. What we’re calling stress is really the “trigger” that causes an internal reaction in us.
You arrive home at the end of the day feeling energetic and happy. It’s been a good day. As you flip through the mail you notice a bill from your doctor. You open it and discover that your insurance has declined payment. Immediately your heart begins to pound and your breathing becomes shallow. Your mind races as you try and figure out how you are going to pay this huge bill. If you were asked how you feel emotionally you might say, “afraid” or “anxious” or “angry.”
These reactions you’re experiencing are the real stress. In fact, managing stress really means managing these physiological, emotional and mental reactions that are so destabilizing. Then and only then can you turn your attention to the trigger (in this case a medical bill) and come up with a plan to address it.
Imagine going through your day and having one stressful episode after another. You don’t have time to recover from an unpleasant phone call before your boss walks into your office with bad news. By the time your boss leaves you’re seriously behind schedule. Feelings of overwhelm rise up and join the stressful feeling of frustration from the phone call, anxiety from your boss’s visit and let’s not forget the guilt you experienced dropping off your kids at school. It’s not even 11 a.m. and you’re already wiped out.
All of which begs the question, “How could stress ever be a good thing?”
I don’t think any of us would ever call stress “good,” meaning it was pleasant or enjoyable, but there is reason to feel optimistic. There are two elements that can have a big impact on how harmful stress is to your health. First is your mindset. Scientific studies show that high stress does increase your risk of dying by 43%, but amazingly this risk only holds true if you believe your stress is harmful. If your stress is high but you do not believe it is harmful your risk of dying drops.
The second factor in “good stress vs. bad stress” is what the stressful event is connected to. If you’re a working Mom and you’re going to school at night to get your graduate degree you can count on feeling stressed. Working, attending night classes, doing homework on the weekend along with meeting the needs of your family will stretch you almost to the breaking point. But your stress is directly connected to something meaningful to you – getting your degree. You know why you’re stressed and you are at choice. This is very different than the stress from having to pay an unexpected medical bill.
So, what are the take-aways for us as we move into one of the most stressful times of the year, the holidays? Never ever underestimate the power of your beliefs and your mindset.
Reflect on the upcoming holiday. What beliefs and expectations are you holding? Are you already telling yourself things like, “I won’t have enough time. It’s going to be hard. It will be exhausting. ‘So and so’ will drive me crazy …” Or maybe it’s, “I always get sick at the holidays,” or “I will gain weight like I do every year.” You are planning your stress and its consequences in advance and your body is listening to every word.
It doesn’t have to be this way. You can make a different choice. You do get to decide how you want to experience yourself. To listen to my podcast, “How to Create More Joy and Have Less Stress in the Holiday Season,” click here. Begin now and plan the holiday you want.
Second, take every stressful event you encounter and ask yourself this question, “Can I connect this event with one of my values and add meaning to it?” You’re having a house full of out of town guests and you have a million things to do to get ready. The pressure you feel is so intense you can already feel your shoulders and neck contracting.
Stop. It’s time to get coherent. First, breathe very slowly and allow your body to calm down. Next, feel a feeling of appreciation for someone or something in your life. Allow that feeling of appreciation to help you connect with your value of family. See the extra work you’re doing as you living your family values. Notice what happens to your stress when you do that. You shift your mindset from, “I have to do all this extra work,” to “I am choosing to do this extra work for the people I love.”
Does this mean you will love the work? No, of course not. It does mean that you will suffer less and be healthier for it.
Remember, bad stress is stress that you believe will harm you. Good stress is stress that connects you to something you care about. Maybe it’s your family, a promotion at work or needing to take better care of your health. Our challenge is to try and reduce the bad stress while managing the good stress.
Learning to manage good stress means we are committed to a life rich in meaning, purpose and challenge. After all, the only way to avoid stress completely is to live a boring life that never changes. Who wants that?
The next time you notice your heart pounding and your mind racing, pause. Take the time to calm your body down and get coherent. Then choose your mindset. Connect to your values and be the Creator of your life.