There are two kinds of stress that affect our lives. Most of us think of stress as a negative, as something we need to get under control if we want to avoid serious health consequences. This type of stress is called dis-stress (distress), and it can be quite detrimental.
Two of the major players that accompany distress are worry and anxiety. These can keep us up at night, cause our heartrates to rise, and put us into a fight-or-flight response. Getting our adrenaline flowing and bringing us to a heightened alert status is critical for survival if a severe threat arises, but it’s not good to be in that state long-term. It’s not only emotionally exhausting. Distress takes a toll on our body systems as well.
So, how do we turn excessive worry and anxiety off? This is a question that has been studied intensively, and there isn’t a universally effective answer yet. Slowing down, taking deep breaths, and repeatedly telling yourself that you’re okay may help if you’re suddenly feeling overwhelmed. Talking with someone and building up a support system is another good coping technique. If distress has become a constant companion for you and nothing seems to be working, have an open discussion with your doctor and see what he or she recommends. That may be getting you connected with a counselor or therapist, or it could be a more medical approach. Whichever way you go, getting these symptoms under control is essential for your physical and mental well-being.
Not all stress falls into the negative category, however. Stress that is good for us is called eustress. Can you think of any examples of this? How about when you have a project with a deadline? Many of us do our best work when we have to meet time constraints. Positive life changes also cause eustress. Graduating, getting married, having children, changing jobs … all of these provoke some level of stress. What separates eustress from distress is that eustress is felt as excitement or as a desire to push past obstacles in order to make positive changes in our lives, while distress holds us back.
Have you made big plans, worked hard to achieve them, and felt amazing when they reached fruition—only to find yourself dealing with serious let-down shortly thereafter? As the director of several middle school musicals, I experienced this each year with the cast and crew. We put huge amounts of time and energy into making the sets, designing the lighting, creating the costumes, doing choreography, and rehearsing to be ready for opening night. Then, a few performances later, it was over. Our time together was done, and there was a void in our lives.
This can also happen when we come home from a dream vacation, or when an educational program is completed. We wonder how we’ll fill up the time slots that we had dedicated to reaching those goals. Taking a little bit of time to rest and recharge is good, but then it’s time to find a new challenge. Striving for success in a venture that requires dedication and effort keeps our eustress levels up, and this makes life more interesting and fun!
There are instances when you may experience both types of stress interchangeably. The holidays are a prime example of this. In the Christian community, there is great excitement as Christmas approaches. This pushes people to decorate their homes, shop for gifts for those they are close to, and prepare special food to share with their loved ones. All of these actions are the result of eustress. For many, however, distress is also present. Financial stress, loneliness, and grief are felt at higher levels during this season—especially as they see the relationships, the fun, and the joy that so many others are experiencing. This is especially true for those who have recently lost a loved one.
If someone you know struggles with distress during the holidays, please don’t tell them to cheer up or snap out of it. Believe me, they would love to join in the celebration going on around them if they could. Instead, invite them to talk about how they’re feeling and let them know they won’t be judged or found wanting. Even with shared traumas or challenges, we each respond in our own unique ways. Pointing out that others have moved on while the person you love is stuck in the negatives is the last thing he or she wants or needs to hear. Once you’ve truly listened and offered your support, ask your friend to go out and do something physically active with you.
Exercise is one of the best stress reducers out there. Anything that gets your heart rate up is beneficial—and doing activities with a friend is even better. If the weather is favorable, go for a brisk walk or hike. You might even meet at a favorite restaurant or coffee shop, go for your walk, then go inside and enjoy something delicious together. If you’re near a lake or the ocean, going for a walk on the beach, kayaking, paddle boarding, or swimming are also great options. On cold or wet days, you can meet at a mall, go bowling, go to a gym, or do any activity you both enjoy. Whatever you choose to do, you will make a positive impact by simply being there for your friend or family member.
If it’s you who is struggling, reach out to a friend. Don’t isolate yourself or fall into the trap of thinking that no one will want to be burdened with your sorrows. If you don’t have a support system in place, find a community group, a church, or a volunteer organization to get involved in. Being an active member will get you out and interacting with others. Finding opportunities to serve those in need is a fantastic way to feel better yourself!