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The way we all understand and use the word “stress” only describes negative situations, which leads us to believe that all stress is negative. But this isn’t true. Some events or situations in our lives excite us, such as weddings and the holidays, but nonetheless cause stress as we become busy with to-do lists and overscheduled social calendars.
Dr. Hans Selye, sometimes described as the "father of stress research," described a series of reaction phases in response to continued stress. These start with the alarm reaction, progresses through adaptation and finally to exhaustion. Selye showed that if the stressor is unrelenting, actual damage occurs during the exhaustion phase, and death can be the end point. Stress is currently thought to be a culprit in heart disease, for example.
It’s Okay to Like Stress
Building on Selye’s work, psychologist Richard Lazarus proposed a dynamic concept of stress, considering individual differences and responses. Describing a difference between good stress (called eustress) and bad stress (or distress), he pointed out that some stressful situations are positive, even exciting. Some even lead to good results or changes.
In recent years, this positive reaction to stress has been explained in terms of hormesis. In the fields of biology and medicine, hormesis is defined as an adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate and usually intermittent stress. An easy example of this is exercise: there’s a sweet spot where enough exercise causes strength and stamina improvements without causing injury. Exercise is an example of a stress that, when approached correctly, leaves a person better off.
One major difference between good stress and bad stress is whether it feels like it’s within our ability to cope with it. (If you feel constantly unable to cope, consider seeking outside help.)
This seems to be an important boundary between the stressors that are exciting and positive and stress that damages our health.
So, stress isn’t all bad. It can help us improve; it can help us get things done. The problem is when stress is unrelenting, feels out of our control and there is no relief in sight. Consequences of chronic stress are serious and range from burnout to heart disease and early death.
We must be deliberate at breaking chronic stress patterns by disconnecting, unwinding and downshifting. One way of doing this is to work on the body-mind connection by creating situations that allow our bodies to talk to our brains and vice versa. Take the time to listen to this conversation; make room for bodily stress reactions to turn off. Breathwork, exercise, as well as stress-relief stalwarts like yoga, meditation and massage all can help.
Another suggestion is to spend time around water. In his book Blue Mind, biologist Wallace J. Nichols describes how water has a unique ability to calm and soothe. Swimming, cold plunges, visiting the ocean or a local creek, and even taking a turn in a friendly neighborhood float tank are all options that can help us find our calm and cool “blue mind” of the book title.
Practice interrupting stress and downshifting from it, even if only temporarily. It’s good to have a variety of tools in the stress-relieving toolbox, so keep exploring different methods and modalities. With time and practice, instead of frantically trying to repair what’s broken, something solid and beautiful can be built. Enjoy and recognize the positive stresses in life. Our hearts will thank us.
Sara Garvin is a co-founder of FLOAT Boston, located at 515 Medford St., Somerville, MA, which opened in 2015. She is a graduate of Kalamazoo College and the Chicago School of Massage Therapy and worked as a massage therapist for 15 years. For more information or to schedule a float session, call 844- 443-5628 or visit Float Boston.com.
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