Knowing how much I love the warm weather and the beach, a friend recently asked if I wished I could I re-locate to one of those Caribbean Islands. Without blinking, the first words that came out of my mouth were, “No, not enough stress.” WHAT?
Well, what I was thinking about was the adrenaline rush that makes life interesting – you know, the race to make the express train, the challenge of the new case, the arrival of last minute guests, the negotiations of pets and people over the holidays…
I wasn’t factoring in the anxious ruminations that keep us up at night, the pressured multitasking that results in lost car keys and misplaced cell phones, or the distracted thinking that equates to missed bill payments, migraines, and fender benders…. stress that spills ‘over the top.’
Experts would say, that this is the difference between moderate or “good stress” and excessive stress. We need what moderate stress offers us. That is, when the brain perceives physical or psychological stress, it starts pumping the chemicals cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine into the body. The result is that the heart beats faster, blood pressure increases, senses sharpen, and a rise in blood glucose invigorates us. In this regard, psychiatrist, Dr. Lynne Tan, describes stress as a “ burst of energy” – the way in which our body tells us what we need to do. According to her and other experts, moderate amounts of stress help us perform tasks more efficiently, improve memory, heart function, and even improve resistance to infection.
The message is that much as we need “ good” anxiety to alert our fight/flight response to danger, a moderate degree of stress exerts pressure that stimulates and helps us.
The problem is that ours is a culture dealing with much more than “good stress.” The American Psychological Association’s 2007 “Stress in America” poll found that one-third of people in the U.S. report experiencing extreme levels of stress. In addition, nearly one-in-five people report experiencing high levels of stress 15 or more days per month.
Unlike good or moderated stress, high levels of stress put us at physical and emotional risk. When such stress persists over long periods of time, it has been found to be associated with high blood pressure, compromised immune system, depression, heart disease and asthma.
How Can we Manage and Moderate Excessive Stress?
There has been considerable attention in the media and in professional consultation on the use of Stress Reducing Strategies to buffer the impact of stress physically and psychologically. The use of exercise, meditation, creative pursuits, music, hobbies, spirituality, social connections and volunteering are crucial life dimensions to stress reduction. We need them but we may need something more.
“Picture a Pot on the Stove”
Adapted from a strategy for understanding workplace stress, here is a way of conceptualizing stress that puts into perspective those internal and external factors that play a role in our experience and regulation of good and excessive stress.
Picture a pot on a stove.
“Over The Top”
There are two primary reasons that your life pot boils over.
In the face of a “full pot” where external demands like job pressure or family expectations contribute to the overflow, it is worth considering:
2. The second reason for your pot to boil over is that the flame,“ your personal stress level” is so high that the pot (regardless of what is in it) heats up so quickly that the “boil over” is inevitable. This is the situation where the mere reminder of needing milk can incite a tirade of blame and accusation.
When feeling an excessive personal stress level, it is valuable to take a personal stress audit. Understanding the level of stress you are suffering facilitates management and reduction.
A Personal Stress Audit is a way of looking closer at yourself physically, emotionally and behaviorally both in terms of causes of high stress level and reactions to high stress level.
One man would show me the palms of his hands whenever I asked how things were going – he used the presence or absence of eczema as an indication of his stress level.
Based on what you observe about yourself, it is always effective to WORK FROM THE BODY OUT. Resetting the body rhythms in simple ways and if necessary with medical or professional consult is always a path to stress reduction.
For one woman joining a weight watchers group was the start to less bingeing, increased walking, better sleep and less stress.
For one man limiting alcohol intake to weekends meant he had more gym time and less stress and reactivity to work and family issues.
People are different and they can handle different amounts of different things. For some folks having four children would be too much. For others the responsibility of a business would be beyond what they could manage.
Most people can tell you the behaviors they use as indicators that their stress is “over the top.”
In some ways the recognition of these behaviors as indicators of excessive stress is as important a stress regulator as the daily jog or the yoga class. As points of information they enhance and broaden the potential for stress management.
It seems that if we are human and we are going to function, we are going to deal with stress- whether here or in the Caribbean. As such, it may benefit us to broaden our stress management to include stress reducers as well as a self-reflective gage of when and why our stress is “ over the top.”
Stress is not what happens to us. It’s our response TO what happens. And RESPONSE is something we can choose- Maureen Killoran
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Best of Our Blogs: January 20, 2012 | World of Psychology (January 20, 2012)
Last reviewed: 19 Jan 2012