Stress is a term usually associated with negative effects. “I’m so stressed” or “I’m stressed out” are popular phrases we use daily, yet did you know that stress doesn’t need to be horrible and that there are both good and bad forms of stress? Applying the term ‘stress’ to human functioning was originally made in the late 1930s with researchers, like Hans Seyle, taking the term from physical phenomena and applying it to human psychology and physiology. A piece of steel could be ‘stressed’ with heat to a point where it would eventually reach ‘breaking point’ and he recognised that this concept could be easily applied to us.
Seyle experimented on animals and exposed them to prolonged stressors like light and sound and observed changes in behaviour. It did not take much to extrapolate the results so they could be used in a human context. The idea caught on and we have not looked back. What we have done, however, is forget that Seyle and his peers observed both good stress and harmful or bad stress. We have forgotten the good, healthy, and useful aspects to stress.
The idea of a stress ‘hump’ emerged. Here’s how it works. You get up in the morning and your body uses some stress chemicals to get up, get dressed, get motivated, exercise, and get into your day. You need stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol to activate your body into action.
At some point in your day, you will begin to feel fatigued. You reach the ‘hump’. This is ideally when you take a break and replenish your energy. You stop for a coffee, have a break, meditate, or whatever. You take some form of rest and continue with this cycle of stress, rest, stress, rest through you day, week, year, and life. We all reach the tipping point at different times. But here’s the thing. In the west especially, we have become accustomed to ignoring the hump. We feel tired so we grab a coffee and a doughnut on the run, we skip lunch, we keep pushing and we begin the slippery slide down into fatigue desperately reaching for something to soothe us like alcohol, chocolate, chips, gambling, shopping or any number of addictive behaviours.
You can do this for a while and use excess resources to push yourself and maybe we need to do this in times of high demand. You might have a deadline to meet, or you may have lost a loved one and need to deal with all that entails. Driving yourself hard is fine for short bursts, but good health over the long term still requires some respect for the hump!
If you live your life on the fatigue side of the hump, this is what we would refer to as bad stress. Your body cannot tolerate this kind of chronic stress for too long before you run into trouble. Fatigue, inflammation, ill health, mental health issues, exhaustion, immune impairment and more will be potentially in your future. You need to attend to your need for replenishment and restoration i.e., rest! This exhaustion is what we mean by distress. You body was designed for acute periods of stress to fight off predators, infection and occasional warring tribes and not prolonged defence and exhaustion of your resources. Stress keeps us alive but is meant to be interspersed with resting, digesting and restoring.
So, with all this in mind, let’s talk about how to befriend stress and how to get the most from your body and mind.
The first step is to ensure that you are attending to your need for rest and staying in the healthy range. Stress, rest, stress, rest…. with the emphasis on rest. Until your body is in an optimal state of rest and restoration, it can be difficult to live in the health zone. For so many of us, it feels normal to be tired and stressed. One of the things we focus on at Quest for Life is self-care and the importance of making yourself a priority in your life. It does not serve the world to feel grumpy, tired, exhausted, and depleted, yet this is how many of us face each day.
So, how can you restore your body, mind, and spirit? What do you long for? How can you get it? I once heard of an exercise that I have used many times in my life. It goes something like this. Get a piece of paper and divide into two columns. On the top write your goal, your heart’s desire, your innermost longing. Now, on the left side write “how I can get this” and on the right side “why I cannot have this”. Then draw a big red line through the right-hand side and never fill it in!
My heart’s desire
It’s great if you can start to be aware of your ‘hump’ and begin to rest when you reach your tipping point. It does make it easier to get into the fun part of stress, but you don’t have to wait to feel better to start befriending stress.
Even if you feel exhausted or in pain, you can begin to shift your perspective to look at the positive side of stress. Think about what would you get out of bed for? What would motivate you to move? What might light you up? Would you get up just for the pleasure of seeing the sunrise? Or to take a walk? Or maybe someone in your life is depending on you and this could be perceived as a joy instead of a chore? What gifts do you bring to the world? What would you like to achieve today, big, or small? Just tidy one drawer!
On a bad day, it’s harder to remember our gifts and we feel stuck in the mud. This may be when we need friends and / or a good therapist to help us out of the weeds.
Plus, we need to be challenged in a good way. I recommend learning something new, challenging your brain with memory games, puzzles, crosswords, bridge, chess or sudoku. All great forms of positive stress. We also need to stress our bodies with exercise like walking, yoga, lifting weights, Pilates, rebounding, surfing, rock-climbing or whatever takes your fancy! An unstressed body is an unwell body. Bodies love to be stretched if the stress is interspersed with rest.
Lastly, we need to stress ourselves to grow emotionally, psychologically and in conscious awareness. Read, come to Quest, go to therapy, do online courses but don’t stop learning and growing! Keep seeking answers because this life is not ‘as good as it gets’. We learn though our suffering so use your suffering well to help you to grow. Ironic as this sounds, our suffering is useful if it brings us to the point of awareness which ultimately can lead to profound change. Stress is neither good nor bad. It is just the body’s way of managing energy and you can either ignore your body’s call for rest and slide down into distress, fatigue and illness or you can become friends with your stress and use it to suck the juice out of life!
I wish you and your friendly stress well as you continue your path to peace.
Quest for Life can help shift your perspective and show you ways to live well with stress through our Healing Your Life program or call 1300 941 488 and speak to our Programs Team.