When we think of “stress,” what comes to mind? It’s bad, right? Uncomfortable. Unhealthy.
If that’s the case, you’re not alone. Many people view all stress as bad. (We can even stress about stress!)
As Juliette Tocino-Smith writes (https://positivepsychology.com/what-is-eustress), “The idea that ‘stress is bad’ is problematic, if not harmful, to our health. Belief plays a vital role in shaping physiological responses.” In other words, what we believe is linked to how we feel. How we feel is linked to our health.
In this light, stress is actually distress! We find no happiness or peace. Life feels chaotic, overwhelming — even tragic. When we see the world this way, even a small event (“I’m late for work!”) can send us into a downward spiral, into a deep, lasting funk.
We humans, like our ancient ancestors, still have primal reactions to distress: Facing potential danger, we either fight, run away or freeze (“fight–flight–freeze”). Our body floods with hormones. That’s how we survived saber-toothed tigers! But there are no saber-toothed tigers today, thank God! So, extreme reactions to lesser events in our lives are often over the top. And unhealthy.
But the good news is there’s a different kind of stress, Hungarian doctor Hans Selye concluded in 1956. It’s called “eustress.” (“Eu” means “good.”)
Some of the benefits of eustress include:
• It energizes and motivates.
• It helps us to cope.
• It increases our focus and performance.
Can we change our distress into eustress? Can we, even in tough situations, bring on a sense of peace? A state of flow? And if so, how?
First, there is a large range of “good” stressors, including, for example, new relationships, buying a home, traveling, exercising, learning a hobby, cooking a complex meal and so on … All bring on eustress.
Second, there have been many scientific studies of eustress and, in general, they agree: “Listen to your body — because what feels good often does good.” The research shows that those who experience eustress regularly reap positive health benefits. I highly recommend Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk, “How to make stress your friend” (www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend/discussion).
Third, what “eustress practices” can we adopt right now?
In Chinese, the term for crisis is two characters — “danger” and “opportunity.” So why not begin by trying to see stressful events as helpful, rather than harmful? With practice, we can develop a mindset that builds resilience to fear. McGonigal calls this a “biology of courage.”
Some obvious basic lifestyle choices include eating better, exercising more, allowing more time for sleep and meditating regularly. Try focusing on your breathing during stressful moments. And I would add, of course, some sort of prayer practice — one that feels right for you!
Since belief shapes our brain chemistry, a healthy sense of self-esteem is also essential. Positive self-talk and reaffirming statements to ourselves can help dissolve negative beliefs over time, as does spending time with a good friend.
As the Doctor says, try different methods and see what works best for you. All of this can help us find hope.
In the meantime, good luck, be well and God loves you!