Stress is good for you

Posted date: September 16, 2013

Stress is good for you, both the good and the bad.  We all have different thresholds or limits of stress, and knowing these so-called ‘tipping points’ coupled with the ability to manage your cortisol (one of three stress hormones) is important part of maintaining a balanced life.  We experience ‘challenge stress’.  Anyone who has ever given a presentation or faced a crowd has experienced it. Last week, I had to face a crowd of 100 teachers at 3pm (not the most joyful time of day to catch a teacher) for a one-hour presentation on seizure disorder and first aid. I was very prepared, yet that feeling of excitement coupled with the unknown (a new crowd) makes even a prepared person’s palms a tad sweaty.  I didn’t quite feel like my heart was beating out of my chest, but that rush of excitement is enough to increase my cortisol levels. Alas, they could not get their projector or their microphone to work, so I ‘activated’ plan b and carried on.

The physiology of stress.  The few moments before you tackle the challenge you get a huge rush of adrenaline (epinephrine), which allows the lungs to make space for more oxygen (labored breathing) and increases your heart rate. The second stress hormone to debut is norepinephrine, which functions as a neurotransmitter, activating glucose and getting your body ready for ‘fight or flight’. The third and final stress hormone to arrive is cortisol, which essentially regulates the level of glucose and makes sure everything is running smoothly. When our challenge is complete and our goal is achieved, all of these hormones return to baseline. (Cortisol is based on a circadian rhythm meaning it is highest when you wake up and at its lowest level at bedtime – so we can handle stress better in the morning than the evening). Essentially, when we have ‘challenge’ stress, we hopefully rise to the occasion!  This is the good stress; the experience aids the growth of new brain cells as we learn from this positive experience.

Contrast this experience with my friend who says she wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before a presentation, rather she is tossing and turning and feeling anxious. Does this sound familiar to you? This is called threatstress, and may not lead to a successful presentation. The body has a roughly similar physiological experience; however. The first two hormones work according to plan, and cortisol levels are raised. But with a lack of a conclusion or attainment of a goal, cortisol does not return to baseline. The presentation did not go according to plan. What do you do with all the free-flowing energy and anxiety when no goal is attained? The stress issue becomes bigger when we are in a constant state of ‘threat stress’, or at elevated levels of cortisol.  Consider this scenario: You are overburdened at work, you need to be in two places at the same time, and your 10 year old needs school supplies yesterday. The lack of the opportunity to regulate the stress hormones now becomes a ‘chronic’ stress and as a result the body cannot adapt to being ‘on or off’.  There was no fight or flight, you are in limbo, call it a purgatory of stress.  Elevated cortisol is essentially wasted energy, resulting in constant fatigue, spacing out and general lethargy. Psychologists have also linked elevated levels of cortisol to depression and suppressed appetite.

Managing stress.  The duration of your stressful moment is important to consider, but so is your perception of it. Riding a roller coaster may raise your heart rate and send your mind through the roof, but you know it will be over in minutes.  Being underprepared or anxious for a meeting that will last an hour is to say the least, nauseating.  Simply viewing the circumstance as a challenge, rather than a threat is enough to generate the positive stress hormones to do their magic and leave you feeling invincible. After all, who doesn’t love to get their creative juices flowing?

We need good stress in our lives to regulate our hormones and ensure we are not collective a reservoir of cortisol that is unused. There are numerous ways to regulate your stress hormones on a daily basis. Here is a sample:

  • Regular cardio. Ever hit a punching bag? That rush of endorphins you get from boxing, or kickboxing will regulate your mood back to baseline.  Don’t worry, running, swimming, and biking are also great ways to reduce cortisol. The key is to be regular and sneak in mini-challenges. Regular physical exercise helps boost self confidence, self-efficacy, which reduces cortisol.
  • Mindfulness / meditation. As I mentioned above, simply viewing your circumstances as challenges rather than threats can alter the physiology of how your body reacts to stress. Being mindful of your surroundings, your choice in how you react to experiences is not easy, but is a liberating tool. Many people also adopt a mantra, which they recite all day, or spend 10-15 minutes reciting in the morning. Whatever you decide, keep it positive and regular.
  • Laughter. When was the last time you laughed? And laughed hard to tears? Part of being mindful of your surroundings, make a point to seek out comedy, or simply allow yourself to laugh. Try laughter yoga! (Yes there is such a thing!)

What methods of managing stress have been most beneficial to you?

 

References

www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201203/the-perfect-amount-stress

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201301/cortisol-why-the-stress-hormone-is-public-enemy-no-1

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