This may seem like an odd thing for wellness coach to say, but stress is not necessarily a bad thing. When described in the very simplest terms, stress is a psychological or physical reaction to pressure applied to a person from external or internal sources. While pressure is generally characterized as a bad thing, that isn’t quite the truth here. That pressure is a good thing, because it shows that you are actually interacting and involved with your life and the world around you. It is similar to the old saying we hear about having a birthday (usually starting somewhere after 40) that it is better than the alternative. The best part of experiencing stress comes when you realize that how you react to it is up to you. It is your responsibility to determine the role stress will play in your life and whether it is to be a positive or a negative partner.
One of the first steps of stress management is to explore the types of stress that we normally experience. Generally, stress comes at us from two directions. It is either internal or external. External is pretty simple. Job pressure, family, friends, pets, finances, aging parents–these are all examples of external stressors. When you are concerned about the world around you and how it affects you and the people you care about, you will experience some level of stress. Again, it is not necessarily a bad thing. This shows that you are alive and connected with a community.
Internal stress can seem a little less clear. After all, why would we intentionally stress ourselves out? This is a question of reality matching ideals. We all have a vision of how we would like our lives to be. A certain level of comfort, perhaps, or financial security. A deep, loving relationship with the perfect soulmate. A home that is the ideal nest for a new family. All of these are examples of ideas of how we might want our lives to look. They are things we strive for, consciously or unconsciously. When the reality of what we experience on a daily basis doesn’t match up to what we would like to have or be, stress enters the picture.
The next piece of the puzzle is to figure out how often and for how long something stresses you out.
Acute stress is triggered by a major life change. Job loss, divorce, death of a loved one will knock the wind out of us. Even something like an argument with a spouse or a fender bender can play havoc with our equilibrium. Obviously, these are examples across a broad spectrum, but how we deal with them will affect us until we can accept, understand, and integrate them into our lives.
Sometimes it isn’t just one thing that sets our world on edge. Sometimes it is a cascade of small events, each one in itself not seeming like that big a deal. It isn’t until they keep coming at you, and at you, that you feel you can’t catch a break. This is known as episodic stress, and is generally seen as a series of events that weaken your ability to cope successfully and live an optimal life. One of the worst things about this type of stress is that it usually starts small, sometimes before we even notice. While we can’t miss being laid off as a stressor, not making it home for dinner with your partner might not rank on the same scale. But when you miss the bus the next day, or it rains when you weren’t expecting it, or you somehow get overage charges on your unlimited minute plan, you might be starting down a road that becomes harder and harder to navigate.
The third type of stress can be deadly. Chronic stress is triggered by an event or situation that does not improve for a long period of time. Having an overwhelming boss, or caring for ill and aging parents are not things that you can easily change. These are situations where, for the most part, we are in it for the long haul. It may not be easy to get a new job in this economy. We certainly wouldn’t turn our parents out into the street simply because it is inconvenient to care for them.
Chronic stress can be the most difficult type to deal with, and is often the type that requires a village. I know many people who are care-givers to parents or spouses who feel they can deal with the situation on their own and get through it. Yet they don’t see the awful changes taking place in their own health as they attempt to cope with the daily demands of care-giving. The truth is, once you realize you don’t have to face an overwhelming situation alone, that it doesn’t make you less capable, then you are one step closer to managing a stressful condition successfully.
Finally, there is actually a good type of stress. Eustress is a term for stress that motivates people to strive for their potential. Eustress causes people to create art or inventions, to improve and enhance the world around them. Learning how to channel this type of stress can help someone create a life of fulfillment by turning this pressure into a creative tool.
So with all the different kinds of stress bombarding us on a daily basis, how can we possibly begin to even think about managing it? Awareness is the key. Stop to think what is stressing you out. How is affecting you? How long has it been lasting? Is there something you can change about the situation? Or possibly with the way you react to the situation if the situation itself is out of your control?
Believing we can eliminate stress is naive and actually harmful in the long run. But when you become aware of what is stressing you and how you are reacting to it, you can begin to mitigate the effects it can have on your physical, mental, and spiritual well being. You have the ability to create the personal environment you need to thrive. Some people actually love the pressure of packed schedule, others not so much.
At its core stress management is a personal choice. But in order for that choice to work in your life, it has to be a thoughtful and informed one. Once you have that awareness, you have the first tool necessary to manage stress and create the energized and satisfying life that you deserve.
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