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Healthy stress | Adopting healthy stress

29 May, 2018
Healthy stress

Best stress practice

Healthy stress might seem like an oxymoron; but just like happiness, sadness, and chrysalism (your new word of the week), stress has been an essential – and healthy – part of human existence.

Stress basics

Ever felt nervous before or during an interview? First date? Worried you won’t make that deadline on time, or that your team won’t win the big game? Congratulations! You’ve experienced stress.

Your sweaty hands, shaking, shallow breathing and feeling in your chest are the products of your body undergoing stress, aka, the fight, flight, and freeze response. This happens because you’re perceiving an external threat which can range from something like a furious cassowary to a grumpy boss.

Obviously, we need this reaction – you don’t want to react to an oncoming train in the same way you react to an oncoming puppy, because humanity would be decidedly flatter and messier than it is now.

Bad stress

Stress becomes a problem when we begin to have intense stress responses to non-threats (like someone reaching out to shake your hand or that weird shadow cast in your room), or when we experience heightened levels of stress for long periods. It impacts our ability to think, sleep, act socially, and the increased and sustained levels of cortisol in your system can impact your immune system, blood pressure and memory.

Tips on managing bad stress:

  • Make time for your family and friends
  • Get plenty of exercise
  • Eat plenty of fruit and veg
  • Make personal time, and make it count
  • Engage in a hobby

If stress is impacting your ability to function in day to day life, hurting your relationships, or making sleeping difficult, you should consult your GP for options.

Healthy stress

Ever faced a challenge head on and won? Participated in a competition? Reasoned your way out of an argument with a partner? Congratulations, you’ve experienced healthy stress!

Healthy stress – also known as acute stress or short-term stress – is beneficial to your health. What separates bad stress and healthy stress is the length of the experience, as well as the rest time in between each occurrence.

Here are some of the ways in which stress can help you live a healthier life:

Determination and focus – when that cassowary is coming at you, there’s very little chance you’ll take the time to appreciate the beautiful contrast between the blue, red and black of its colours. Instead, your entire body and mind are going to be united in one goal: get away from this giant, monster bird.

When bent towards a task, this determination and focus can help you finish tasks and achieve goals – and achieving goals is an important part of good mental health.

Creates new nerve cells in the brain – studies on rats have shown that, after a stressful event, stem cells in brains are proliferated into new nerve cells. These nerve cells can then, depending on chemical triggers, develop into neurons, astrocytes or other brain cells.

What does this mean? Well, rats who underwent stress performed better at memory exercises two weeks post-event and showed poorer results two days post-event.

Giving ourselves time to recuperate between stressful events can help our minds develop!

It boosts the immune system – the stress and heart-pounding adrenaline you feel when you’re chasing a good deal online is the same feeling your ancestors had when they were closing in on a delicious cassowary (they have reasons to fear us too).

This chase required our bodies to work harder, damaging our muscles and organs, meaning our system works hard to recover once the hunt is over and the giant cassowary leg is fried.

Increases resilience – you’ll have noticed that, after trying something new for the first time, you won’t react as strongly the second or third time. By the seventh or eighth, it might barely register on your danger radar.

On the surface, this makes complete sense; if we reacted with the same levels of stress to the same events, we’d never get anything done.

But there’s more to this story, and ways to make acute stress – healthy stress – work for us.

It’s called reappraising arousal. Simply put, it’s about changing our perception of stress from a reaction to a tool.

For example – viewing your pounding heart as a tool for better performance, or your racing mind as a great way to focus. We’re not quite sure what kind of tool sweaty hands will make, but when we think of one, we’ll update this space.

 

Sources

Stress - Victoria Better Health Channel

The surprising benefits of stress - Berkley 

Study explains how stress can boost the immune system - Stanford University 

Researchers find out why some stress is good for you - Berkley

Stress - American Psychological Association

Good stress, bad stress - Stanford Medicine

What is stress? - Stress management society

Stress and Health: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants - Annual review of clinical psychology

Improving acute stress responses - Association for psychological science

All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified medical practitioner. CBHS endeavours to provide independent and complete information, and content may include information regarding services, products and procedures not covered by CBHS Health Cover policies.

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