Do You Have Chronic Stress? How Much Is Too Much?

relax chronic stress

STRESS: The Good, The Bad, and The Crow’s Feet

You read that right. Stress can be good for you.

You’re probably wondering why I’d say that. Isn’t stress always BAD? Doesn’t it accelerate the aging process? Along with worrying and fretting, doesn’t it result in more wrinkles on our faces and more fat on our bellies?

STRESSOR: an event or circumstance that you perceive as a threat, or that you feel could result in the loss of something you care about.

***Stressors can also be physical. Exposure to toxins would be an example. This article will address psychological stress.

STRESS: the physiological response in your body to a stressor

EUSTRESS: good stress (you get to decide what’s good)

I know you’re aware of all the ways stress can negatively impact your health. How it increases your likelihood of developing all kinds of degenerative diseases – like Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, chronic fatigue, arthritis, and chronic pain… But did you know there are Upsides to this so-called Demon?

3 Benefits of Short-Term, Low Level Stress

1. Powers Up Your Brain

Brain chemicals called neurotrophins are produced when you experience mild stress. By strengthening the connections between neurons (nerve cells in your brain), focus is improved and productivity increases.

2. Strengthens Your Resilience

While I wouldn’t sign up for Navy SEAL training, this repeated exposure to extreme stress results in the ability to make future stress events easier to manage. By practicing being in stressful situations, the SEALs develop a strong sense of control, both physically and psychologically. Once in combat, they are more prepared to rise to the occasion. Life for a woman over 50 can feel like Navy SEAL training at times. By the time you’ve reached midlife, you’ve likely endured (and successfully navigated your way through) one or more daunting challenges so far. The process of thriving through parenting challenges, work ordeals, caring for an aging parent, the death of someone close to you, or perhaps your own health concerns have helped you develop strength and courage. It doesn’t require Navy SEAL training to see that you possess a profound degree of resilience – that you can rely upon when stressors arise… As you know they will.

3. Boosts Your Immunity

The body’s response to stress is well documented. While chronic stress has detrimental outcomes, there is an objective of this physiological response that isn’t often discussed. Under stress, the body prepares itself for the threat of injury or potential infection. When your body senses a stressor, your immune system mobilizes a massive amount of regulatory cells, such as interleukins, in the effort to defend the body from attack. So, on a short-term basis, stress could potentially strengthen your immune system. [1]

Another profound way to benefit from stress is by reframing (or rethinking) what stress means to you.

Did you know that your thoughts about stress have a greater impact on your wellbeing than the actual stressful situation itself?

Translation: if you believe stress is detrimental to your health, then your body will have a certain, predictable, physiological response. If you look for the beneficial aspects of stress, and focus on them, your experience of stress is then transformed into something positive. Sounds unbelievable. Simply thinking that stress is good or bad is what makes it so?

Is There Really an Upside to Stress?

If you’re a woman who is passionate about her life, if you’re committed to several meaningful endeavors, then it’s likely that you’ve intentionally enrolled in a life that’s bound contain stress. Since stress isn’t going to go away, then perhaps we might learn to embrace it – and look for its transformative value.

Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD states: stress isn’t all bad. New research shows that stress can make us stronger, smarter, and happier. In her book, The Upside of Stress, McGonigal claims that life’s challenges can be a catalyst for positive action, personal growth, and compassion. Her book reveals practical strategies for transforming anxiety into courage, isolation into connection, and adversity into meaning.

McGonigal shares a study in her book. According to her, this study was the initial catalyst that changed the way she thought about stress. Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

“In 1998, thirty thousand adults in the United States were asked how much stress they had experienced in the past year. They were also asked, “Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?” Eight years later, the researchers scoured public records to find out who among the thirty thousand participants had died. Let me deliver the bad news first. High levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. But – and this is what got my attention – that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress. The researchers concluded that it wasn’t stress alone that was killing people. It was the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful. The researchers estimated that over the eight years they conducted their study, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely because they believed that stress was harming their health.” [2]

Perhaps being flexible is the most helpful approach to take… To not see all stress as black and white, good or bad… To see both sides, and then choose to focus on the upside. As noted above, there are benefits to short-term, moderate stress. It’s true that one person’s stressor may very well be another person’s passion. And while reframing your view of stress can completely transform your body’s response, I definitely recommend that you also include stress management techniques in your life on a daily basis.

Tips for Managing Stress

Just Say NO – When you say no to something or someone, it allows you to say yes to something or someone else – and that something else could be time to just be.

Let Go – At midlife, we become more acutely aware of how precious each moment is – so cull out obligations or commitments that don’t align with your highest values.

Delegate – One way to ease your own load and help another woman is to become a mentor. Are there tasks you can hand off, and at the same time, teach someone a new skill that they can add to their toolkit? Danielle was a patient of mine who hired Marietta, one of the high school girls from her church, to pick up groceries for her. Danielle then spent time showing Marietta how to prepare a few of the family’s favorite dinners. Marietta was thrilled to learn some culinary skills. They doubled a few of the recipes so that Marietta could bring a meal home for her own family.

Just say YES – Intentionally choose meaningful commitments. Give yourself to something that perhaps you harbor some doubt about your ability to handle. Trust that you can rise to the occasion. Remember that the stress response, in many situations, is helpful. It can actually enhance performance!

Modify Your Stress Response

1. In the moment, try one of these techniques to minimize your stress response:

  • Breathe – Inhale for the count of 4, exhale for 4, and hold for 4. Repeat 4 times.
  • Acceptance – When we resist what is, stress physiology increases in the body. Consider a thought such as, “I’m feeling some stress, but I’m okay, and this will eventually pass.”
  • Reframing – Rethink stress. Remember that your body’s response is its way of supporting you.

2. Commit to a Daily practice of eliciting the relaxation response.

  • Mindfulness Meditation – If you are new to this, I recommend beginning with Headspace, a free app available for your smart phone.
  • Yoga or Tai Chi – Both of these disciplines create space for the mind to quiet as you focus on your breath and the movement of your body. Look for beginner classes at your local YMCA or search on YouTube and try a few moves or poses at home.
  • Journaling – Gratitude journals are the current buzz, but writing is a personal experience, and it brings you into the present moment – no matter what style of journaling you choose. Did you keep a diary when you were young? Why not now? I enjoy jotting down the details of my dreams as soon as I wake up.
  • Walking in Nature – Don’t forget to disconnect… No cell phone. If you don’t live near a nature trail, just walk around in the grass in your yard barefoot for a few minutes.

Consider your thoughts regarding your own stress. What is its impact on your life? How could you reframe your outlook?

The next time you’re faced with a stressful situation, you can think about this article, and know that your racing heart is your body preparing and supporting you to rise to the challenge in front of you.

And reflect on what Kelly McGonigal has to say regarding stress:

“…One thing we know for certain is that chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. And so I would say that’s really the best way to make decisions – go after what it is that creates meaning in your life, and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.”

Resources:

  • [1] How Stress Helps the Immune System. A study, published in The Journal of Psychoneuroimmunology, was conducted on rats. It revealed that short-term stress can actually help boost your immune system. The researchers subjected rats to mild stress by confining them (gently, and with full ventilation) in transparent Plexiglas enclosures. The team drew blood several times over a two-hour period and discovered that the stress caused a massive mobilization of several key types of immune cells into the bloodstream and other parts of the body. This particular study provides evidence that immune responsiveness is heightened by the so-called “fight or flight” response.
    http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/247216.php
  • [2] McGonigal, Kelly (2015-05-05). The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It (p. xii). Penguin Publishing Group.
  • [3] TED talk by Kelly McGonigal. https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend
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