"Stress is like spice - in the right proportion it enhances the flavor of a dish. Too little produces a bland, dull meal; too much may choke you."
Finding The Balance with Stress
When you hear the word stress, most people automatically think of a negative outcome: disease, discomfort or distress!. Stress is "the response of the human organism to any change or demand". But is the outcome from a demand put on the body necessarily always bad? I think about when I was growing up and had annual piano recitals. There was no doubt that I felt a great deal of stress, but this is what caused me to prepare and practice at a very high level so I could achieve my goals of being a great piano player. The actual day of the recital I felt a tremendous amount of stress but after the recital was over, assuming I didn't totally blow it, I actuallly felt a great sense of accomplishment and mastery that would not have happened had I not been subject to this stress. As the quote above suggests, there may actually be a "sweet spot" for stress where a demand is put on the body and the outcome is actually good.
Most people are well aware of what stress means to them. When people are under pressure to achieve, or have constant demands that exceed what they feel they are capable of handling, they feel the negative effects of stress. Physically, they may experience chest pain, a racing heart beat, rapid and shallow breathing, trouble sleeping, digestive dysfunction, muscle tension and headaches, to name a few. To soothe this state of "distress" people may engage unhealthy practices such as overeating or drinking which starts another set of stressors that comes from being overweight or side effects of too much alcohol. The body, feeling under threat, is sending distress signals by secreting the hormones cortisol and adrenaline as it prepares for the flight or fight response designed to help the body evade danger. The problem is that if stress is not well managed or is excessive, this response can cause or exaccerbate disease.
Eustress, on the flip side, is defined as "good stress". In this state, you find yourself feeling engaged, inspired and excited about what lies ahead (like my piano recital example above). This is the "sweet spot" that as a coach I am helping the client find so they feel challenged about the goals that lie ahead but not overwhelmed or out of control. Too little of the good stress and the client feels uninspired and finds it hard to move forward toward healthier habits.
For some clients, too much work is the stressor. They may love their profession but they are feeling crushed by the demands of their job. With some experimenting, many clients have found that by altering their work schedule (which gives them a sense of balance, time to recharge themselves and to practice self care), they are back in the flow zone (sweet spot) and once again they are feeling engaged and excited. On the other end of the spectrum, clients who retire prematurely, may experience the stress that comes from lack of engagement. Unless they find a way to spend their time in a meaningful way the makes them feel engaged, retirement boredom becomes their new stressor.
Taking small steps and experiementing with a schedule until it feels balanced and meets the needs of the client so they find their sweet spot or eustress, (engaged and excited but neither overwhelmed nor bored) they start to flourish in ways that bring good health and happiness back into their lives. Stress need not be all bad, but careful management is necessary so that you can live a life that feels exciting but allows the body to maintain optimal health.