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Winifred Lender: How to Maximize Positive Stress Experiences and Turn Them to Your Advantage

When asked to identify synonyms for stress, most people typically select words such as “anxiety,” “worry” and “adversity.” Only a small minority of people, most of them psychologists, would select words like “growth producing” or “motivating” to describe stress.

However, research has shown that this minority has a point: certain kinds of stress are actually positive and a certain level of stress is key to healthy development. Appreciating the different types of stress can help you approach stress in a more informed way and can allow you to harness the power of positive stress in your life.

Innovative research shows that not only is our perception of stress critical in determining its impact on us (see my last column: Rethinking Stress — Is It a True Villain?), but also the type of stress we experience dictates how it affects us. It is generally agreed that there are three different types of stress experiences: acute, chronic and eustress. Each differs in the body tension it elicits, the length of time tension is experienced, and the speed at which we recover.

Acute stress is the type of stress we all experience from time to time. It comes from a quick activity that requires our body to respond rapidly and involves fear or a potential threat. Veering away from an oncoming car while driving, running toward a child that is about to fall off a jungle gym or waking up to your burglar alarm sounding in the middle of the night, are all situations that could cause acute stress. The experience of stress is intense: our heart starts racing, our palms sweat, our pulse quickens, but it is generally short-lived and we can often return to a relaxed state quickly.

Chronic stress is what we typically think of as “bad stress.” It is long-term stress that feels uncontrollable and may have no end in sight. An unhappy marriage, a hostile work environment and an ongoing health condition would all lead to chronic stress. Our bodies aren’t equipped to deal with this ongoing high level of stress, which causes a constant state of tension. This kind of stress can lead to high blood pressure, depression, sleep disorders and weight gain.

In contrast to the other two types of stress, eustress (“eu” from the Greek, meaning good or well) literally means Good Stress, and is not caused by “real danger” or an “ongoing stressor,” but rather by “excitement” or “nerves.” This is the kind of stress or tension we feel when we give a speech in front of others, go on a job interview, go on a first date or ride a rollercoaster. This positive stress is not caused by any real danger or threat but rather by excitement or a desire to succeed. This type of stress is often called growth promoting in that we are pushed into a new situation in which we may grow. The stress is short term and is often under our control. We can decide if we go on the rollercoaster, accept the blind date or give the speech. After these experiences, we may feel exhilarated, disappointed or excited, but our body tension tends to decrease rather quickly.

Of the three types of stress, the chronic stress is the one that has long-term negative consequences. While this type of stress may be unavoidable, our response to it is not. When faced with a chronic stressor, we can attempt to moderate it, such as going for marriage counseling, looking for another job or consulting with experts about a chronic medical condition. In addition, we can attempt to mediate our response to the stressor in cognitive and behavioral ways.

Cognitively, we can work on viewing the stressor as just one aspect of our lives and remind ourselves about how we have been successful in conquering other stressors in the past. Behaviorally, we can engage in activities, such as exercising, meditating, eating healthy foods and allotting sufficient time for sleep that will minimize the impact the stressor has on us. Eustress is the type of stress we should actively seek. This type of stress helps us grow, pushes us into realms we may be unfamiliar with, and keeps us from feeling bored and depressed. While we might initially see eustress as something to avoid — who wants to risk a disastrous blind date experience — being able to approach a task that is a challenge and overcome it can be very reinforcing.

Each person will differ in what experience will cause good stress; for one person participating on a day-long hike might lead to positive stress while for another partaking in a two-week Outward Bound hiking program might yield this positive stress. As we attempt more activities that cause eustress, we grow in our ability to handle progressively more intense experiences. An individual who initially found presenting to a small group as producing eustress, may after several more presentations, find presenting to a group of 50 eustress producing.

Other ways of seeking out eustress experiences involve branching out into unfamiliar territory; trying activities we don’t usually engage in. Going to a yoga class, taking a tennis lesson, enrolling in a foreign language class or a cooking class, can all be eustress producing when they involve a new experience for us.

When evaluating whether to undertake a situation that may be stress producing, the goal is to consider whether it will be growth enhancing. Evaluate how long the experience will last, if it will be controllable, what other stressors you may have that are ongoing, how effective you are in viewing the stress as positive, and how proactive you are in finding ways to recover well after the stress experience.

Always keep in mind that some level of stress is a healthy and wards off depression and boredom. Specific recommendations for maximizing the good stress in your life follow.

Wishing you a day full of some positive stress!

Remember:

» Not all stress is bad.

» Eustress can be growth enhancing.

» Avoiding stress is not possible and can lead to lack of motivation and depressed mood.

» Some level of stress is actually motivating and essential.

To seek out eustress enhancing experiences consider the following:

» Try physical or mental activities that are within your normal comfort zone.

» Periodically mix up activities to avoid boredom and maximize the eustress potential of an experience.

» Progressively increase the challenge over time to get the maximum benefits of a eustress experience. While running your first 3K race may initially be eustress producing, with continued training you will need to compete in longer races to get the true eustress experience.

» Be thoughtful about experiences you take on, evaluating them carefully to determine if they will be eustress producing. Consider how prolonged the stress may be, how controllable it will be, how many other stressors are ongoing for you, and how effective you have been in conceptualizing and recovering form stress in a positive way.

To minimize the impact of chronic and acute stress engage in the following:

» Focus on how you conceptualize the stress, attempting to view it is an adaptive and helpful response to a stressful situation.

» Engage in behaviors that moderate the impact of the stressor on you, including physical activity, healthy eating, getting sufficient sleep and engaging in mediation or other activities that help decrease your stress level.

» Remind yourself that while chronic stress can affect your health, you can control the degree of its effect through your conceptualization of the stressor, your attribution of the body stress response, and the behaviors you engage in to mediate it.

— Winifred Lender Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). She provides cognitive-behavioral therapy for sleep regulation issues, anxiety and depression, and completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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