Disparaged as dangerous, healthy stress levels actually can push you to peak performance. Too much of it, though, strains your heart, robs you of mental clarity and even increases your risk of chronic disease. A study by the American Institute of Stress reported that 77 percent of U.S. citizens regularly experienced the physical symptoms of stress. Thirty-three percent of those surveyed feel that they are living with extreme stress levels.
Researchers and psychologists now say that it is possible to learn how to identify and manage individual reactions to stress. We can develop healthier outlooks as well as improve performance on cognitive tests, at work, and in athletics.
This is how stress affects the body when performance matters: The sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands pump stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, into the bloodstream. This causes the common effects we’re all undoubtedly familiar with — the heart beats faster, breathing speeds up, and muscles tense.
For some of us, the exhilaration we feel when pushing against a deadline is similar to the rush a thrillseeker gets during an extreme sport such as bungee jumping. By activating the dopamine reward center in the brain that feeds us feel-good endorphins, stress can temporarily boost performance.
It’s what comes next that divides healthy stress from harmful stress. People experiencing what is known as “adaptive stress,” the more beneficial kind, feel pumped and ready for action. The blood vessels dilate, increasing blood flow to help the brain, muscles and limbs meet a challenge.
The body responds differently to harmful stress. Symptoms often are similar to those during a fit of rage or anger. The blood vessels constrict. You may begin to speak more loudly and experience lapses in logic or judgement. Hands and feet may grow cold as blood rushes to the body’s core. Research has shown that in cases of threatening stress, the heart often begins to beat erratically.
While the productivity benefits of stress may have you thinking that your busy lifestyle is justified, over a long period of time, stress can not only debilitate your productivity but have serious health implications.
To use the example again of an adrenaline junkie, your habit of trying to fill your days with multiple competing demands can quickly spiral out of control. Eventually the brain develops a tolerance for stress, so you’ll need more of it to feel the same rush. Ultimately, you’ll end up constantly pushing yourself to force your body to release that burst of cortisol and adrenaline you’ve become accustomed to. But how do you split the benefits from the harmful effects?
A 2014 study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 42 percent of adults say they are not doing enough or are not sure whether they are doing enough to manage their stress. Twenty percent say they are not engaging in an activity to help relieve or manage their stress.
To manage your stress levels and separate good from bad symptoms, keep a positive attitude. Keeping stress to a healthy level is achievable through the use of relaxation techniques, including deep breathing and guided imagery. Acknowledge your worries instead of building them up in your mind until you are overwhelmed.
In addition to thinking positively about stressors, deep abdominal breathing and training in meditation and mindfulness, or regulating one’s own mental and physical states, helps moderate stress.
Stress is an unavoidable fact of life, but the next time you’re up against the clock, remember to take a break. Feeling stressed isn’t worth getting worked up about!