Not all stress is bad for you, especially “eustress”.
Derived from the Latin “strictus”, stress also takes its meaning from the Old French word “estrece”, that can be translated as “oppression”. The literal definition of stress is strain, but the medical meaning, from 1956 (from a research by Hans Selye), which refers to the concept of a “problematic” response to a stressful, painful and dangerous stimulus, is by far the most widespread.
The 3 phases of stress
- alarm – the body prepares to defend itself through a biochemical, adrenal, respiratory, muscular and sensorial modification.
- resistance – the body tackles the stimulus and the production of cortisol is extended
- exhaustion – if the stressful stimulus (known as “stressor”) does not cease, the Central Nervous System is no longer able to keep up the defenses, and collapses.
Physiologically speaking, the defense mechanism is not built to last long but to respond immediately to stimuli it perceives as dangerous or painful. If this condition of alarm and resistance is maintained for a long time, the body risks breaking down and various problems can occur. To understand this better, let us imagine that we have been stung by a bee and are screaming: our scream can last even for a few seconds but what would happen if it were to extend for hours, days or months? The vocal chords, heart and lungs could not withstand a strain of this type, hypoxia would set in and it could result in serious (in some cases, irreversible) health problems.
Distress and Eustress: a fundamental difference
It is possible to remain in a state of alarm-defense, even where the stressful stimulus is no longer there. It can also happen that a person reacts with a great deal of alarm, when in reality the danger is only slight or even insignificant. This is a condition of distress, in other words negative stress that pathologically alters the hormonal balance of the body and destroys the psychological (and immune defense). Indeed, when a person is constantly in distress, something happens sooner or later; the effects range from a nervous breakdown to explosions of anger or despair, to debilitating consequences for the coronary arteries.
Eustress on the other hand is an acceptable form of stress that allows the psychological and immune defenses to practice and get stronger. Eustress is the right amount of stress, which, instead of worsening a situation, improves life because it makes us more adaptable to negative situations. Let us try to understand this better: if we were to run 40 km every day, we would soon end up collapsing; if every day we practice sports for 30 minutes, it benefits the body and our mood and improves our health.
How can we manage stress and transform it into Eustress?
Although no one has a magic wand, it is possible to improve our defenses and the way we cope with stress to improve life and avoid, as much as possible, being caught up in conditions that cause distress:
knowing how stress works, being aware that under stress our ability to judge dwindles somewhat, and learning to recognize signals of distress, are certainly important if we don’t want to “become ill”
- occasions for “unwinding”
stress is accumulated in the same way that the strength of a bow is accumulated when the string is pulled; to avoid the arrow from being released at a certain point, it is necessary to find moments of relaxation during the day. Practicing a sport, laughter, meditation, taking a walk, video-games: each of us can find our own time to unwind
- rules of behavior
don’t take the mobile phone you use for work back home, on Saturday and Sunday don’t look at your work emails, don’t talk about work over meals; giving yourself rules that keep stress out of your family and social life is a vital step towards healthy stress management, because a condition of distress tends to pervade and engulf everything (some people are so used to intense stress that it appears they are unable to live without it…)
- dedicate time to rest
this not only means sleeping, but sleeping well, it is not enough to snooze off on the sofa at 2 o’clock in the morning while scoffing a bag of chips: It is crucial to learn how to rest properly, both by using sleep devices (pillow and mattress), and by learning how to induce sleep through techniques for breathing, visualization and muscular relaxation
- breathing as a key to everything
stress changes the way we breathe; in highly stressful situations, we take shorter breaths, the diaphragm becomes stiffer and oxygenation is only partial. This breathing pattern is important for facing danger, but if we are continuously under stress, it may become our normal way of breathing. Some people even breathe by holding their breath before they exhale. Re-learning how to breath by activating the diaphragm not only allows complete oxygenation, but also completely relaxes the muscles, allowing us to unwind emotionally in a way that would otherwise be impossible.
If we want to tackle stress head-on and win, one of the best weapons is Yoga. To do this, it is important to be comfortable before practicing what is considered the greatest enemy of stress, it is important to have a yoga mat that makes it a true pleasure.