Features, What The Health

‘Stress Is Like Spice…’

Image of Elizabeth Serieux PhD, MPH
By Elizabeth Serieux PhD, MPH

“STRESS is like spice – in the right proportion it enhances the flavour of a dish. Too little produces a bland, dull meal; too much may choke you.”

The preceding is one of my favourite quotes from author and stress expert, Dr. Donald Tubesing. It perfectly captures how stress affects our lives and brings to mind the happy middle ground we should all be seeking.

Last week, we spoke at length about the negative impact that chronic stress has on our health and our lives. We recognized that in order to reduce this negative impact, we can find ways to eliminate or reduce the stressors in our lives and/or we can find ways to induce the relaxation response.

This week, we will delve a little deeper into some actual strategies for achieving those goals and since you kept your homework sheet from last week, you will be able to apply those strategies directly to your context and your life.

However, before we move on to that, I wanted to make sure that I don’t leave you with the impression that stress is a totally bad thing. It is not. As the quote above indicates, it only becomes a problem and threatens to “choke” us when there is too much of it in our lives, for too long a period and we are unable to achieve a state of relaxation or homeostasis.

In the right quantities, and under the right circumstances, our stress response is actually very helpful. For instance, your stress response in light of a deadline or an approaching exam, given the right context, can actually motivate you and push you to work more efficiently. I don’t know how many of you have ever heard of the stress response curve; it depicts the relationship between stress and performance and is shaped like an inverted or upside down “U”.

Take a minute to picture it…stress is on the horizontal (x) axis and performance is on the vertical (y) axis. Now picture this, for the first half of the curve, as the level of stress increases, so does performance and near the peak of the curve we find our “sweet spot” or “comfort zone” – this is where stress serves us well – we can manage this level of stress and perform excellently.

Past that, at the very top or peak of the curve we get to the point of fatigue and going down from there the relationship between stress and performance is different; as stress increases, performance decreases. This is where the problems like illness and exhaustion live.

So, how do we avoid tipping over from the positive to the negative side of the curve? Well, we can do a variety of things, all of which are geared towards either eliminating or reducing the stressors and/or inducing our relaxation response. What are some of those things?

Now would be a good time to get out your answers to last week’s tasks and, just in case you did not read last week’s article, here are the tasks: (1) identify the situations in your lives that activate your stress response, (2) identify ways to eliminate those situations if possible or to reduce the frequency with which you find yourself in those situations (this can include reframing your perspectives and redefining your contexts), and (3) find ways to deliberately and actively switch off or “turn down” the stress response and bring your body back to a state of relaxation or homeostasis.

Okay, so bearing in mind your own unique list, see how many of the following strategies to redefine your context and reframe your perspective you can apply to your life.

Stress Subduing Strategies:

1. Practice the four As of stress management:

A#1: Avoid: Learn how to say “no” to tasks and to people. You cannot do everything and be everything to all people – so don’t even try and don’t feel guilty about it, either. This way, you choose what you do and with whom you interact and you will be happier and perform better.

A#2: Alter: Basically, take an inventory of the things you do when you are stressed and then try to do things a little differently – change the way you communicate and operate in your daily life.

A#3: Adapt: It may sound a little harsh but you will definitely stress less if you expect less – a lot of our stress comes from holding ourselves and others to impossibly high standards – relax a little bit and change your expectations and standards; stop striving for perfection and strive for improvement instead.

A#4: Accept: Sometimes we’ve done all we can and we are left with no choice but to accept things the way they are. When we are in those situations, it doesn’t mean we just give up or throw our hands up in the air in defeat. We can still protect ourselves by learning from our mistakes, forgiving, practicing positive self-talk and sharing our thoughts/feelings with someone we trust and respect.

Unfortunately, that’s it for this week. Next week, we will look at ways to switch off or turn down the stress response. Until then, I leave you with another quote, this time from the great Maya Angelou: “If you don’t like something, change it; if you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

Think about it.

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