The University of Auckland's study demonstrating the links between increased psychological distress and death from heart disease piqued my interest.
First, because my dear husband has already suffered one heart attack and I constantly worry his stress will induce another. But also because coverage of the findings demonstrated a woeful lack of understanding of how to deal with stress.
Good stress/bad stress
The first thing to understand is that not all stress is bad. Small amounts of stress can improve performance, signal the need for better preparation, alert us to danger and threat or prompt us to stand up for our rights. At times, experiencing stress indicates where we have acted wrongly, in which case it teaches us important life lessons. All of this in small doses is healthy and has, over thousands of years, enabled humans to adapt and survive.
However, while our "fight or flight" stress response served our ancient ancestors well – causing us to flee when faced with a sabre tooth tiger – the frequency that same stress response is triggered by 21st-century living causes all manner of harm.
The bad news on stress is certainly bad: chronic stress (constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time), and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt almost all of our body's processes, increasing risk of heart disease, weight gain, sleep problems, memory and concentration impairment, anxiety, depression, digestive problems and headaches.
The traffic light approach
While we cannot remove all stress from our lives, we can work out ways to handle it. I get people to develop PSPs (Personal Stress Plans) using a Stop, Pause, Go traffic light approach. Red means stop and learn to notice your stress symptoms; Yellow prompts us to pause and consider the cause of the stress, working out what we can and can't do; Green is for taking action to reduce its toxic effects.
I'm constantly amazed by the diversity of people's stress symptoms. Teeth grinding, sweating, broken sleep, butterflies, impatience, racing heart, neck and back pain/stiffness and self-medication usually top the list. But there are lesser known symptoms, too: pessimism, narrow-mindedness, an inability to focus, and constant rumination can also be signs of stress. Rumination – replaying or anticipating negative events over and over (to our psychological detriment) – is a uniquely human trait.
Having identified the symptoms of unrelenting stress, it's time to press pause and take stock. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is my interpretation of this situation/event realistic or faulty in some way?
- Or am I jumping to conclusions or taking the situation too personally, which is leading to undue stress or unnecessary anxiety?
- Is this good stress requiring my attention now? Do I need to get better prepared or learn from this situation?
- Does it involve things that will improve over time?
- Does it involve things I have no control over? In which case, how can I let that go?
Ultimately, where unresolvable stressors occur and no amount of reappraisal reduces the worry, we can turn off the stress response in other ways. The three most reliable are to burn it off (physical exercise), connect with others (physical closeness) or tune it out (with absorbing activities or formal mindfulness techniques).
What you do is your choice, but leaving stress unchecked is profoundly damaging for our hearts, minds and relationships. In a world where we can't usually sprint away from threat or fight it out with a colleague, having a Personal Stress Plan may just be the difference between life and death. And I mean that literally.
Written by Lucy Hone. Republished with the permission of Stuff.co.nz.