Finding the Line: Stressed or Stressed Out?
Where is the line? What is manageable stress? When am I stressed out?
Each of us experience stress in different forms such as a fast-approaching deadline, a high caseload, a demanding practice and colleagues, difficult financial decisions, or managing family, work, and life in a pandemic. Feeling stressed is normal, is generally experienced in a healthy way, and can be managed by existing coping mechanisms. Some people excel with a healthy amount of stress. But there is a line. Stress can also become toxic and interfere with healthy functioning (e.g., loss of sleep, decreased energy, attention span, or productivity). When that happens, the line is crossed into “stressed out;” and we are on the road heading to possible emotional and/or physical breakdown and burnout.
All stress is the body’s response to change that creates taxing demands and engages our bodies’ nervous systems. Before humans were working in offices and living in houses, the stress response saved our lives and had us prepared for battle, to run away, and to freeze. This helped us to fight off a predator or an enemy, outrun them, or hide from them successfully.
Now, we are menaced by deadlines and workloads rather than sabretooth tigers. Unfortunately, repeated and prolonged exposure to stress can cause long-term damage to our bodies and minds. But, it doesn’t have to!
There are different types of stress.
- Distress is what we consider your “garden-variety” negative stress. What causes distress varies from person to person. There are some situations which are experienced in daily life and can cause stress for most persons such as job loss, injury, illness, interpersonal conflicts, grief, or financial concerns. Distress can be long- or short-term and causes anxiety or concern, feels unpleasant, decreases performance, and is perceived as outside our coping abilities. If distress is prolonged, it slowly becomes toxic (and alternative coping mechanism, including outside support, should be considered).
- Eustress is what we consider your “garden-variety” positive stress. Examples of personal situations behind eustress include getting married, changing jobs, having a baby, getting a promotion, buying a house, retirement, and taking a vacation. This positive stress can motivate us and focus our energy, is short-term, feels exciting, improves performance, and is perceived within our coping abilities. When a person is competing in a race they are experiencing eustress when they are pushing toward the finish line. Not all stress is unpleasant!
- Acute Stress is short-term and can be eustress or destress. It is experienced as an immediate perceived threat, either physical, emotional, or psychological. Stressors causing acute stress are on a spectrum of mild to severe such as an alarm clock chiming, a new work assignment, giving a presentation, being involved in a car accident, and interpersonal disagreements. Your heart and breathing rates speed up; you feel flush; you sweat. Acute stress can be easily managed because it occurs and then it’s over. Either multiple instances of different acute stressors (a series of unrelated stressful events) or repeated occurrences of the same acute stressors (experiencing the same stress repeatedly) can add up to a state of chronic stress where the body’s stress response is constantly triggered.
- Chronic Stress is a constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time and can contribute to long-term physical, emotional, or psychological problems for heart and blood vessels. It can result from significant life events (e.g., high-pressure jobs, financial difficulty, and challenging relationships) or from smaller stressors from which we don’t bounce back like we normally might. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate and the elevated levels of stress hormones and blood pressure can take a toll on the body (e.g., irritability, fatigue, headaches, limited concentration) and can increase the risk for the development of a range of physical and mental disorders (e.g., heart disease, high blood pressure, respiratory infections, insomnia, depression).
If you are experiencing high stress levels, acknowledge it. You won’t make it go away or negate the effects by pretending that it doesn’t exist. There are several strategies that help reduce stress levels and improve well-being, such as:
- Activity: Don’t forget to take breaks to refresh yourself. You can’t function at full speed forever. Do not eat lunch at your desk or in your car if you can possibly help it.
- Exercise: Take walks when you can and feel the sun on your face and the wind in your hair.
- Breathing: Slow your breathing when you feel stressed (it really does work). Take a breath, not too deep, and then exhale the breath out slowly, making sure to take longer to exhale then you did to inhale. This easy trick engages the parasympathetic nervous system, slows your heart rate, and stops the fight/flight/freeze response that stress can sometimes trigger.
- Diet: Pay attention to your diet and have regular physicals. Stay on top of recommended health screenings.
- Self-care: Take time and make time to engage in hobbies and other meaningful tasks.
- Speak with friends and family: Take time and make time to socialize with others, whether online or in-person.
- Self evaluation: If you are using alcohol, tobacco, or drugs to cope with stress, examine your use and evaluate whether this manner of coping is really helping you, and then consider other options.
If you are concerned about how stress is impacting you or someone else, please give us a call. VJLAP services are free and confidential. We also have several support groups throughout the state that meet at different times to accommodate most schedules. We can help you to find ways to reduce the impact of stress in your life and strike a health balance.
** This information is meant to provide an overview and should not be used as treatment or advice. Please consult with a professional regarding diagnosis or treatment.
Stressed or Stressed out: What’s the difference? (McEwen); Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience.
How deep-breathing with longer exhalations triggers calming. (Bergland); Psychology Today.
Eustress vs. Distress vs. Stress: How to Know the Difference. (Wack); BetterHelp.
Understanding the Stress Response. Harvard Health.