Stress and anxiety: Accessing the benefits!
by Janet Silverstone Perlis and Despina Vassiliou
We often assume that anything stressful or anxiety-provoking is always negative and should be avoided at all costs. Scientists, however, point out that stress and anxiety are not always harmful and actually provide benefits.
This type of “good stress,” referred to as eustress, and the negative, more harmful version called distress both produce similar physiological symptoms. The difference lies in our perceptions of them. Eustress motivates us, operating at times like when working to meet a deadline. Distress is typically associated with fear, producing feelings of overwhelm and defeat. Eustress is believed to be a normal state that contributes to our overall health. Research has found a link between a short-term exposure to eustress and improved immune system functioning, among other health benefits.
To help normalize anxiety and stress, changing our perception of that stress from something distressing to something more manageable can be empowering.
Some ways we can reframe stress include:
- Interpret the physiological symptoms of stress as a warning sign. They prepare us for something that is happening, whether the source is negative or positive. Much like a smoke detector that goes off at the first sign of smoke, our initial feelings of discomfort related to stress are a way for our body to energize us for the next step.
- Use stress as a motivator. The alertness generated by the stress response can mobilize us into action, enhance our performance whether it is completing a task or test, or competing. Eustress has been shown to enhance working memory, focus and energy.
- Experiencing stress as inoculation helps us handle similar situations in the future. Much like a vaccine can boost our immune system, exposure to stress and successfully managing it can build our resiliency. Smaller doses of stress give us a chance to develop coping tools and the confidence to navigate the tough situations. These previous experiences help build our resilience.
Stress is ultimately unavoidable; there is no such thing as a stress-free life. However, we can strengthen our coping skills by engaging in some of the following:
- Exercise is a natural way for your body to recover from the stress-related chemical changes, such as increased adrenalin and cortisol.
- Instead of criticizing ourselves, take a moment at the end of the day to think about our accomplishments. Focus on what worked and reinforce helpful strategies rather than dissecting what did not go well or did not get done.
- Distinguish between situations you are able to control versus the ones you cannot. It is most rewarding to focus your energy on situations that are changeable and find ways to get through situations out of your control.
- Break down tasks into smaller, more achievable goals.
- Never compare your response to a stress to anyone else’s. We may all be in the same storm but on different ships.
- Recognize when it is time to seek out extra support. Sometimes talking to a good friend is enough, however if the worries persist and you have difficulty functioning, don’t hesitate to speak to a therapist with the goal of learning to handle stressful situations.
Remember: Distress can be reframed into eustress. It is a matter of perception and mindset – we must focus on it.
Janet Silverstone Perlis, M.Ed., is a psychologist, and Despina Vassiliou, Ph.D., is a psychologist and coordinator, Student Services. Both are at the English Montreal School Board.