Most people find that they experience stress in their daily lives. What creates emotional or mental tension is different for everyone, but a busy schedule, a demanding job, or interpersonal relationships carry the potential to create stress in one way or another. Life events like a wedding, a move, or financial problems have the ability to take stress from acute, or short-lived, to chronic. Distress happens when the amount of stress you are experiencing exceeds the resources you have to manage it; it is the negative emotional reaction to stressful factors. When large-scale events, such as a global health threat, happen, it can be hard to tell if what you’re experiencing is a normal stress response or distress.
The Good and the Bad: Stress, Eustress, and Distress
Stress is a normal response to certain stimuli. Our minds and bodies are designed to protect us from a perceived threat, releasing stress hormones to help us engage our fight-or-flight response. This reaction is meant to be helpful. The body’s heart rate increases, sending blood and oxygen to our muscles and ramping up our adrenaline in order to manage the threat. It can also cause issues when the stressor doesn’t go away, causing this response to happen continually. What stress is good stress and which is bad?
When considering the idea of a threat, it need not always apply to our physical safety, though this system is designed to help us survive in such situations. More commonly, this “threat” is going to be more of a challenge, something to be overcome. This type of stress, eustress, isn’t negative or bad for us. It’s the kind of stress we experience when we are starting a new job, preparing for the birth of a child, or moving into a new home. This is where the stress hormones our body releases can assist us, motivating us and helping us be more productive and adaptable. It can be good for our mental well-being by helping us build resilience and driving perseverance, as well as our physical well-being, as it drives us to physically power through things that make us stronger, like intense workouts and building endurance.
Acute stress is typically a one-time or short-term stress, the kind experienced when our alarm doesn’t go off in the morning or before a big exam. Due to the effect that stress hormones can have on things like our digestive, respiratory, and muscular systems, acute stress can feel unpleasant. When under stress we can experience anxiety, shortness of breath, headaches, and stomach aches. Typically, the effects of acute stress are short-lived. As the stressor passes or is removed, our system returns to a healthy level of hormones like adrenaline.
Prolonged exposure to stress, such as a situation that cannot be resolved for months,, can lead to chronic stress. Chronic or long-term stress can have negative effects on your health, as the body isn’t able to receive the signal to lessen the production of stress hormones. Over time, the results of prolonged excess of stress hormones can result in physical complications, such as high blood pressure, increased risk of stroke, reproductive issues, weakened immune system, and chronic pain. Chronic stress can also perpetuate mental health issues, such as constant anxiety which can lead to panic attacks and depression.
Distress is the result of any of these types of stress exceeding your ability to manage it. Distress happens when you experience a high-volume of acute stress factors, chronic stress from situations that cannot be changed for long periods of time, or habitual behaviors that result in repeatedly negative emotional stress. There are also internal factors that can cause distress, for example, stress that isn’t generated from external factors but rather is a result of our own thinking. Fears and phobias, obsessive thought patterns, and perfectionism are all internal stressors that can put us in distress.
Coping with Stress
Left unmanaged, stress has the ability to harm us mentally and physically. It can also damage our personal relationships, as the irritability and anger we can experience as a result has the tendency to have an effect on other people. We may also turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms to manage the effects of stress, such as substance use. Learning to manage stress is important, as is recognizing that no two people experience a “threat” the same.
Some ways to cope and avoid distress are:
Practicing awareness – Recognizing when your body is responding to stress can be helpful. Noticing when an event will trigger things like increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, or nausea can help bring awareness to your body. You can also practice awareness of what types of situations are likely to trigger a stress response in order to help keep you mentally alert and prepared.
Find methods of relaxation – Grounding techniques can be helpful in stressful situations because they bring our minds and bodies to the present. Breathing exercises can help slow the heart rate and signal to the brain that it can decrease the production of stress hormones. Taking part in activities you enjoy during stressful events can help foster positivity and boost the production of serotonin.
Goal-setting and self-care – Setting goals can help alleviate stress, keeping us in action towards managing a stressful event and helping keep us from habitually stressful behaviors. Goals can be a motivator that helps take something from acute stress to eustress. When we are in the middle of a stressful event, practicing self-care in the form of massages, yoga, and meditation can help restore calm for short periods of time.
Seek the assistance of a professional – When stress feels unmanageable and is creating panic attacks, depression, or physical problems, seek the advice of a medical professional. Therapy can be a necessary and helpful tool in learning to deal with chronic stress factors and avoid staying in a state of distress.
Ashley Addiction Treatment is an innovative treatment program located on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. Ashley provides support for professionals seeking help with addiction. We are able to help people with co-occurring disorders and offer confidential treatment programs to meet your needs. Please reach out to us today at (800) 799-4673.