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  • Sharon Livingston, Ph D

Stress or Disstress?





Usually when people say they’re stressed, they’re talking about feeling uncomfortable at best and overwhelmed or anxious at worse. They actually mean they’re in distress. Distress has negative consequences. It is accompanied by concern and anxiety because it feels as though it’s beyond our coping capabilities. Distress feels bad mentally or physically or both. When we’re distressed it’s harder to function and perform well. While some people become very anxious others become tired and depressed and have a hard time interacting or performing. When prolonged, distress can lead to health problems.

The most common examples of stressors that result in distress are ones we’ve all heard of from the loss of a significant person in our lives to starting a new career.

But stress can actually be a good thing. In primitive times, when we were faced with escaping the clutches of lions and tigers it helped us realize the threat and run fast to escape.

In today’s world, stressors challenge us, inviting change and often growth and learning. They are an opportunity to become stronger and smarter. When we exercise we are intentionally creating stress to enhance our lungs and heart capacity as well as strengthening our muscles. The end benefit is a body that’s more in condition and fit.

When we learn a new skill or study a new subject, we’re choosing to stress ourselves to know more and have greater abilities in our lives.

Hans Selye introduced the concept of positive stress, or eustress, in 1974. He defined eustress as “healthy, positive, constructive results of stressful events and the stress response.”

When we confront big, exciting changes in our lives with positivity and hope, we’re experiencing eustress—for example, starting a new job, a new romance, a new sport, preparing for a new baby. These experiences are associated with feelings of motivation, energy, and inspiration.

Reframe How You View Stress:

Most often, what makes stress good or bad is the way we perceive it. If we think of stress as helpful and motivating vs. negative and debilitating, we can control the way it affects us.

Under stress, we experience extra energy as well as increased focus and performance. We can use that response in ways that benefit us. Instead of judging the feelings as negative, we can reframe them as impetus for better outcomes. We’re made to adapt to changes. Stress can empower us to take on challenges and succeed.

Moreover, research supports the fact that when we think about stress as excitement, we perform better under pressure and feel better about the results. A number of studies on karaoke singing, public speaking, and math performance, which are often experienced as stressors, showed that people who reframed how they thought about the stress they were feeling as excitement rather than stress felt and acted more confident and competent during the experience.

Reframing stress with an optimistic attitude can actually reduce the physiological markers of stress. Studies show that positive people have more stable levels of cortisol. [Cortisol is a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands to enhance fight or flight responses. It's important for helping your body deal with stressful situations. But when stressors over stimulate the adrenals, causing high levels of cortisone for a prolonged time, there can be negative health effects – weight gain and high blood pressure, disrupt sleep, anxiety, depression, reduced energy levels and diabetes.]

We can enhance our optimism by focusing on positive outcomes and on our natural strengths.

Here’s an example:

One of the most difficult things to face in life is abandonment. It’s interesting to see that when couples separate, BOTH feel abandoned regardless of who decided to leave. Separation is a major stressor and it’s very possible to go down the rabbit hole of anger, hurt and despair. But even in the worst cases, there’s always a silver lining.

Being on your own is an opportunity to get to know yourself and your interests again. It’s a time to meet new people. You can reconnect with your friends. You get to feel the thrill of a first kiss. The future is open and you can create it without the stress of a relationship that doesn’t work.

Understanding distress vs. stress sheds a different light on how we can take back control when circumstances try to steal it from us.

Our stress responses are there to empower us. No matter what life brings, we can use the fruits of stress, our heightened awareness and focus, to become stronger and more successful.

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