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Good Stress, Bad Stress – What’s the Difference and How Do We Cope?

posted on April 23, 2018


This really goes without saying, but it’s how this article needs to start: every single person, reading this or not, has experienced stress of some kind. It’s unlikely that any of our readers have ever been chased by a bear (if you have been, please tell us all about it ASAP), but maybe you’ve had to give a speech in front of a large group of people, got a terrifying medical diagnosis, or got overwhelmed during college finals week. To your body, these events are all the same, and all produce similar reactions: an excess of adrenaline, pounding heart, stomach in knots, hyper aware of everything around you. When you’re feeling these symptoms, your body is in a sympathetic state: what we commonly call fight-or-flight mode. The good news is that this kind of stress can actually be a good thing!


Acute stressors include activities like the training you do in the gym and taking on new challenges in your day to day life. Going skydiving for the first time? You can bet you’re going to have a stress response! But in that situation, it’s a welcomed response. The sympathetic state you go into in the face of something terrifying turns off all the bodily processes that are, in that moment, unnecessary, diverting all of your energy into making your body and your mind work faster and more accurately. When you overcome your body’s urging you to STOP AND RUN in the face of a challenge, you’re not only getting to do the things you really want to do, you’re building resolve and resiliency that will carry over to all other aspects of your life. Lifting heavy weights and running long, long distances create stress on the body and localized inflammation, needed to rush blood and nutrients to the now slightly damaged tissue. In the rest period after, your body has the chance to both recover and supercompensate, so that the next time it needs to perform that task, it’s better prepared. If you never pushed yourself, you’d never get that response, and you’d never get better!


Some people take the idea of using acute stress as personal development even farther. Life coach and motivational speaker Tony Robbins uses a fairly extreme method of creating acute stress: cold water immersion. Every morning, he starts his day by plunging into a vertical pool of 57-degree Fahrenheit water for several minutes. There are lots of physical benefits to cold water immersion – improved lymphatic and cardiovascular circulation, reduction in muscle inflammation – but I’d argue the real benefit is in increased resolve at overcoming such a major stressor. If you want to give this method a try at home, give a 2-3 minute cold shower a try in the morning. It’ll definitely wake you up, take you out of your comfort zone, and prepare you to face just about anything that day.


If there’s good news, that means there’s also bad news. When you ruminate on that public speech, when the medical diagnosis leads to a long treatment plan, when you’re constantly feeling like you’re behind on your schoolwork, you’re experiencing chronic stress. With chronic stress comes chronic inflammation: a 2012 Carnegie Mellon University study found that chronic stress inhibits the body’s ability to regulate inflammation, which can lead to quicker development of disease. So now, not only is your day to day life more difficult because you’re feeling those acute stress symptoms all the time, you’re actually making yourself chronically ill on top of being chronically stressed.


Before I get into some ways to help mitigate that chronic stress, let’s look at how and why it’s happening. Cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone, is the biggest player when it comes to chronic stress and inflammation. When your body is constantly sensing stressors (remember, to your body there’s no difference between being hunted and taking a hard test), it is also constantly secreting cortisol to help you handle those situations. Cortisol, despite its negative reputation, is a super useful hormone. As stated above, some acute inflammation is good! We need it to heal and ultimately get better. Cortisol allows that to happen when all is in working order. The catch comes when your stress never really subsides. In this situation, your body is nearly constantly secreting cortisol, and in doing so decreases your cells’ sensitivity to the hormone. What does that mean? You need more and more cortisol to regulate that inflammatory response, so that response gets out of control and there’s still tons of stress hormone hanging out in your system. Over time, chronic illness can result.


Now, how do we avoid this? First, refer back to my no bullshit self-care guide. Tackling stress-inducing situations and events head on and early is always going to be the most effective way to mitigate chronic stress. Prevention is the best medicine after all. However, there will always be major stressors that happen suddenly and seemingly at random. Here are a few tips to help calm down, both in the moment and over time:


  1. Belly breathing! Deep, diaphragmatic breaths have the incredible power of taking your body out of the sympathetic, fight-or-flight state, and putting it into a parasympathetic, or relaxed state. The results can be just about instantaneous. See Ryan’s article on RPR, which utilizes belly breathing first before any other methods, here.
  2. Meditate. This one will be hard to use in the moment until you practice it a little. Meditation has traditionally been a struggle for me: I’d quickly get frustrated at how my mind seemed to work against me and just would not turn off. With some practice and an excellent app called Breathe, I’ve learned that meditation isn’t about sitting in a field of daisies with a totally clear mind. It’s about developing the ability to direct your thoughts where YOU want them to go. You don’t need to be at the mercy of your thoughts. It’s your brain, you can control what happens up there with practice. I try to meditate for a few minutes each day, with guidance from my trusty app. When I get into crisis mode, it is now much easier for me to direct my thoughts to something useful instead of careening out of control.
  3. Practice makes perfect. Or at least it makes things easier. Like I said above, taking on some acute stress in the form of training, trying new things, or something as intense as an ice bath help you become more resilient in the face of stress. Practice handling stressful situations that are more within your control. Make those challenges harder (that’s progressive overload) over time to continue getting stronger. Life isn’t too unlike the gym, huh?


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