If, like most of us, your stress and tension levels are peaking as the holidays approach, here's some good news: When properly identified and managed, stress can actually help inspire new ideas, motivate action and even stop disasters before they happen. Yes, you read that correctly: Stress can be good for us.
Despite its reputation as a negative and damaging physiological phenomenon, stress is an essential part of a healthy life, says Kia Sanford, owner of Kailo Counseling & Nutrition and the "Get REAL" program in Ashland and Klamath Falls.
"Without some stress, we would not be able to function in our environment," explains Sanford. "Without some positive stressors, we would not be able to hold a job, navigate relationships, drive a car or find food to eat."
Finding balance between the good kind of stress, known as eustress, and distress (not so good) is the key. First, learn to tell the two apart.
"Eustress is the tension you feel before exerting yourself physically — it gets your system primed for action whether that's chasing a Frisbee or having a pillow fight with your kids," says Sanford. "It is also the way the body prepares to fight or flee from a dangerous situation — it's what prepares you for dealing with a stressor."
The "cascade of biochemical changes" brought on by eustress creates feelings of anticipation, excitement and creativity; they even help us laugh at a funny movie.
Distress, on the other hand, is associated with anxiety, concern and feeling out of control. It can strike when people are forced into uncomfortable routines or environments. People exposed to unresolved, negative stressors for prolonged periods can feel physically or emotionally trapped and can suffer physical symptoms like "increased blood pressure, increased pattern-B cholesterol levels, increased blood glucose levels and more," says Sanford.
So how do we focus on eustress and jettison distress? Well, the stress equation is further complicated because the body doesn't differentiate between the two — it just gets ready to engage chemical responses to address the internal upheaval, regardless of the cause. What does determine the outcome is one's perception of the stressor: Is it a short-lived eustress reaction to something exciting or is it a drawn-out distress reaction to intense discomfort?
"Without the mind being able to perceive an end to the stress, it can't help the body regain internal, environmental balance," says Sanford. "This is where stress-reduction techniques come in."
As the holidays approach, try using these techniques to harness good stress and keep bad stress at bay.
Supplement your diet. B complex can help replace vitamins lost during stressful events, says Sanford, who also recommends magnesium citrate, magnesium malate or magnesium taurate to support the relaxation response of the musculoskeletal system. Herbs like ashwaganda, withania, chamomile, valerian, schizandra and astragalus may also help maintain balance.
Drink carefully. Limit caffeine to no more than two cups of coffee a day, sipped in the morning. While a single glass of wine or cocktail may aid relaxation, more can increase blood pressure and interrupt sleep, leading to more stress.
Sleep soundly. Switch off all screens — televisions, computers, phones — at least one hour before bedtime and go to bed at a regular and reasonable time.
"If you have a TV in your bedroom, you are setting yourself up for trouble down the road even if you don't have trouble sleeping now," advises Sanford. Move it to another room.
Find your limits. "If we feel stressed around friends or family or holiday get-togethers or work or co-workers, the stress is telling us to create a different choice, to draw a boundary around the event or activity so that we feel safe or healthier," says Denise Byron, owner of Vision Your Life in Ashland.
Change gears. "Stress can be a little nudge that means it's time to make a change," says Byron. "It's an indicator that things are moving in a direction that doesn't suit us."
Move your body. If you start to feel locked in a stressful "smiling contest" during the holidays, go do dishes, take a walk or steal a few deep breaths in the bathroom. "By staying put, you are subjecting your insides to an increasingly toxic bath," says Sanford. "By moving, you engage the systems that help to process those chemicals and feelings ... in a healthy way."
Slow down and listen to what your stress is telling you. "Necessity is the mother of invention," reminds Byron. "If we are stressed and overworked, the unhappiness that creates might lead us to a problem-solving solution or invention."
And remember that nervousness and edgy feelings can sometimes precede the attainment of a goal or dream. Now, that's a great gift to find under the tree.