You may have heard that stress is good for you. Or you may have heard that stress is bad for you. Confusing? That’s because not all stress is equal. Hans Selye, who was one of the first researchers to focus on stress, coined the term “eustress” to refer to stress that gives you a feeling of fulfillment, success, or other positive feelings. An example of eustress is the stress you feel when competing in a contest for which you are well prepared, or when you are engaged in a challenging job that you enjoy.
Eustress enhances your functioning and is good for you because it makes you feel more alive, interested, and engaged with life.
Distress is the bad kind of stress. It can either be acute (you encounter a hostile dog that chases you) or chronic. Acute stress is the normal and helpful reaction of the body to a threat, when the body releases adrenalin and cortisol into the system, helping you to react more rapidly, run faster, and think faster. While it may leave you feeling shaken, you needed that extra oompf to escape the threat.
Chronic stress is the kind of stress imposed by modern life. The body actually doesn’t know the difference between a rabid dog and a difficult boss; any threat will cause the body to release stress hormones, and the body will react accordingly with elevated blood pressure, accelerated heart rate, and other symptoms of stress. The problem is that when a person is chronically stressed, it can cause a lot of health problems.
Selye mentions that chronic stress leads to anxiety, withdrawal and depression, but there is as much or more physical damage caused by chronic stress as psychological damage. Many respected medical institutions, including Stanford University Medical Schools, the National Institutes of Health and Mayo Clinic, estimate that as much as 90% of preventable disease is caused by stress.
This is because those stress hormones—so helpful when we are confronted by real danger—can cause damage to our tissues when they are always present in our systems. They can cause:
- High blood pressure
- Head and muscle aches
- Immune system impairment
- Heart attacks
- Breathing dysfunction
- Constricted arteries, high cholesterol
- Weight gain
- Digestive issues such as ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome
- Accelerated aging
And these are just some of the physical issues created by chronic stress. Clearly, the less chronic stress we feel and the more time we spend in eustress, the better off we are.
If you are aware you are chronically stressed, then you can take steps to do something about it. But many people accept a state of chronic stress as normal. That’s the way they always feel, so they cannot recognize or accept they are in a state of continual stress. Most people are not going to proactively address a problem they think they don’t have.
So how do you determine whether or not you’re stressed? Consider whether you experience any of the physical issues mentioned above. Do you have a lot of indigestion? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you find it impossible to lose weight, even though you eat carefully and exercise? Do you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure? These conditions may indicate chronic stress, especially if you find you have a lot of these issues.
You can also detect stress through heart rate variability, or HRV. HRV is the variation in the time interval between one heartbeat and the next.
When we think of our heart rate, we generally think of a number between 60 and 90 beats per minute. This number represents the range for the average heart rate. In fact, your heart rate changes from beat to beat. When you inhale your heart rate speeds up and when you exhale it slows down. So rather than referring to a fixed pulse of, say, 60, the heart rate will actually vary between, say, 55 and 65. HRV is a measure of this naturally occurring irregularity in the heart rate. Nearly a quarter-century of clinical research has shown that when HRV levels are high, a person experiences low levels of stress and greater resiliency. When HRV levels are low, this is an indication of greater stress and lower resiliency.
General practitioners and internists are generally not set up to measure HRV, even though it’s been studied for about 30 years and is an accepted vital sign. You can measure your own HRV using a commercially-available heart monitor such as Wahoo or 60-Beat and an app like SweetBeat™ for the iPhone, which was designed specifically to monitor stress levels using HRV.
Regardless of how you choose to detect stress, it is critical to lower stress levels in pursuit of better health. The good news is that there are many simple and inexpensive ways to reduce stress, including deep breathing, meditation, nutrition, exercise, yoga, and much more. Do the things that help you to experience eustress, and avoid the things that cause you distress. A simple concept, but one that may bolster your health and prolong your life.
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Do you wonder whether you are experiencing chronic stress? Download SweetBeat™, the iPhone stress management app: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/sweetbeat/id492588712?mt=8