You know the score: stress deeply impacts both our bodies and our brains, affecting our health and the incidence of disease. But stress as an overarching term for all forms of strain and tension is too simplistic. We need to differentiate between three types of stress if we want to explore ways to counter it and also if we want to contemplate if stress could even be good for us. In this post I explore the types of stress, the impacts of sustained stress and how to counter it.
Get this, current thinking on stress discerns three levels of stress:
1. Positive stress – going after something you want but are not guaranteed of getting, for example wanting a new job and stressing about the interview; stressing about giving a talk and wanting to be recognised for being knowledgeable; wanting to be the winner and being recognised for your athletic prowess and stressing about a marathon you’re running.
2. Negative stress – getting hit by a bad event and having the personal capability or access to support to pull through, for example being made redundant; the death of a parent.
3. Malignant stress – getting hit by an event that is beyond bad and for which you need to have the personal capability or access to any external support that can arrest your mental and physical downward spiral, for example the death of your spouse or child; losing your business that you invest a large chunk of your working life into building.
What’s the catch? You may not notice the impact of one stress event, but for most of us in the modern manic world what is truly dangerous is the compound affect a continuous stream of stress events has on breaking down our resilience without us taking the time to recover and regain our resilience.
So let’s take a closer look. When you are hit by a stress event your body automatically activates certain organs and deactivates others through a powerful cocktail of hormones that have evolved to provide you with the maximum resources required to overcome the cause of your stress. Theoretically, once the stress subsides your body returns to an equilibrium position.
However, when you are bombarded by a continuous stream of stress you don’t let your body recover. This contributes heavily to the probability of you succumbing to one of the modern stress pandemics: cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.
Surprisingly enough you might not even feel stressed: you may get used to and even think you are thriving in your made environment of back-to-back long-haul flights, lack of sleep, constant noise, barrage of social interruptions, noxious fumes, excessive alcohol and overeating. Taken together over an extended period of time these are as dangerous to your health and well-being as one major malignant stress event. And what’s worse, is that we can be blissfully unaware of the affect this is having on us.
Why is all this so important? The impacts of sustained, heavy stress are twofold:
1. Negative rewiring – while neuroplasticity can be used as a tool to positively rewire our brains and behaviours, stress can lead to a negative rewiring in which our cognitive function is decreased. We may notice this through an increase in mood swings.
2. Decreased brain health – malignant stress events have been shown to suppress the regrowth of neutrons that are vital to ongoing brain health, especially as it relates to long-term memory and emotional responses.
And another thing, your ability to overcome stress and how you react to it can be partially predetermined: men are more likely to react through emotional outbursts or other forms of antisocial behaviour; women are more likely to develop depression; a nurtured childhood can increase the capability for remaining emotionally stable in the face of negative or malignant stress and even lead to you seeking out and thriving on positive stress.
What can you do now to overcome the stress overload?
So what’s the answer? There are four things you can do to proactively counter an overload of stress:
1. Building a fierce practice – through a combination of reinventing yourself to be more authentic, being more focused on what gives you meaning and undertaking regular mindfulness and breathing activities.
2. Getting physical – undertaking regular aerobic exercise such as walking, and especially walking in nature.
3. Sleeping more – increasing your sleep time by going to bed earlier, preparing for sleep by reducing screen time 30 minutes before bed and taking power naps during the day.
4. Flexing your stress muscle – exposing yourself to a balanced series of positive stress events can help you exercise your stress muscle and maintain a buffer to major, unexpected stress events, for example, by ensuring you regularly speak publicly.