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Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Respond to It

Stress

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~Viktor Frankl

These days we can’t seem to get away from stress. We all feel it, and we all hate it. Even my sister’s two dogs are on a special diet for their stress-induced digestive issues, and I’m pretty sure they hate stress too.

Recently it hit me: Our relationship with stress is dysfunctional. No wonder we’re stuck in an anxiety-ridden existence!

Stress is Love

Stress has gotten a bad rep, but it serves an important function—it keeps us safe from danger. Closely linked to our ability to feel fear, stress enables us to be alert and respond to perceived threats in our environment.

When we perceive a threat, the amygdala in our brain sends a distress signal to our hypothalamus, which activates our sympathetic nervous system. This switches our body into “fight or flight” mode, triggering a series of physiological responses to help us get away from whatever is threatening us.

Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released, and our heart rate and blood pressure increase. Our blood sugar levels rise to give us more energy, and our breath quickens. This sharpens our senses and gives us a temporary boost in energy, strength, and reaction times.

All of this happens in the name of increasing our chances of survival and keeping us alive. We wouldn’t be here as a species if we were not able to feel stress and react accordingly in dangerous situations.

Bottom line? Stress loves us and wants to keep us safe. We owe stress a big fat thank you wrapped up in an apology for bad-mouthing it all the time.

This realization was a tough pill to swallow. A few years ago burnout brought me down to my knees physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I blamed stress and hadn’t quite forgiven it for all the suffering it caused me.

The truth? Stress wasn’t to blame. If I had properly acknowledged it, seen the red flags, and reacted sooner then maybe I never would have burned out in the first place.

This was hard to accept, but it was also incredibly empowering.

The Timing Problem

Historically, being able to pick up on external stressors such as predators and fighting, hiding, or running away was a matter of life and death. The problem is that what stresses most of us these days is very different from what used to stress our ancestors, yet our bodies respond to these stressors similarly.

In other words, our bodies overreact to stressors that aren’t life-threatening. This includes internal stressors like negative thoughts and external stressors like deadlines or, in my case, toddler tantrums.

It’s a timing issue. We live in a modern time where we experience stress 24/7, but we’re armed with a primitive stress response with which to cope. This stress response is activated so frequently that our bodily functions and stress hormones rarely have a chance to return to normal levels.

If fighting or sprinting away from deadlines, relatives, bills, responsibilities, toddlers, and traffic police was a socially acceptable way to deal with our daily stressors then we’d be all set. In most cases though, running away, hiding, or fighting makes matters worse.

And so we get stuck—bombarded by stressors and experiencing the physiological symptoms of stress that we’re biologically programmed to experience, yet unable to cope by responding how we’ve historically responded.

It is this prolonged stress that has a negative effect on our health and our life. Long-term effects can include disrupted sleep, a compromised immune system, poor digestive function, increased abdominal fat, blood pressure changes, brain fog, low mood, sugar cravings, inflammation, and chronic pain to name a few.

I’ve experienced most of these and they aren’t pretty. The hardest part was clawing my way out of bed every morning because I was so wiped out and exhausted down to my core.

No wonder I hated stress! 

Reset Your Relationship With Stress

When it finally hit me that stress comes from a place of love and protection, I decided once and for all to mend my dysfunctional relationship with stress.

I’m now convinced that our relationship to stress is one relationship we can’t afford not to heal. Our health, happiness, and sanity are riding on it.

Here are three steps you can take to reset your toxic relationship with stress and restore its rightful place as your ally.

1. Shift your stress mindset.

Stop badmouthing stress and blaming it for ruining in your life. It’s not an external evil force out to get you, so show it a little bit of respect. To get it on your side, you need to first believe that it is on your side and that you are in control.

Believing that stress has my best interests in mind, I now ask myself: What is my experience of stress right now trying to tell me?

For me, it is often a signal that I have taken on too many things at once and need to slow down. Or, that I have been prioritizing everyone else and haven’t been taking good enough care of myself.

2. Mend your relationship to stress.

Instead of judging stress, start making more of an effort to get to know your stress response. Like any supportive relationship that is based on trust and mutual respect, the first step is to listen. Pay attention and get curious:

  • How does your unique experience of stress feel?
  • What are your triggers?
  • Where does stress show up in your life?

I experience stress as back, neck, and shoulder pain, coupled with a tightening sensation in my stomach that is often accompanied by digestive issues.

Some of my triggers include work deadlines, the travel hustle (scrambling to get a million things done before a trip), sleep deprivation, the deadly combination of gluten and dairy, my email inbox, feeling rushed, and having to get my son into his car seat.

3. Change how you engage with stress.

Learn how to de-escalate your stress response. Most of us don’t know how because we weren’t taught. It’s as simple as learning a few new skills to put to use when you feel stress getting the best of you, and committing to actually using them.

Mother nature wouldn’t have given us a highly sensitive stress response if we didn’t need it. She also wouldn’t have done so without equipping us with simple ways to switch it off. Breathing, laughter, meditation, and changing our internal dialogue are a few examples of this.

We’ve become so busy in our lives that we’ve lost touch with this and turned stress into the enemy. This is disempowering because we’re actually in control of our mind and body, so we’re in control of our experience of stress.

I use different techniques to switch off my stress response depending on the stress trigger I’m facing, how desperate I am, and where I am. Some are more conducive to being done in public than others. I recently did an eleven-minute kundalini meditation with my arms up in the air on an airplane, but many would find that awkward!

When it’s a person causing me to get flustered—like my toddler when he is in tantrum mode—I’ve found that it’s important to stay present, connected, and “be cool.” In these instances I choose techniques that don’t involve closing my eyes or doing anything outwardly visible or obvious with my body.

For example, I’m currently loving silently repeating the phrase “all is well” in my head when I feel my stress levels escalating, and combining this with belly breathing.

First, I bring awareness to my breath. Breathing from my nose, I consciously start to slow down and deepen my breath, making sure that my abdomen is also expanding out (on the inhale) and contracting in (on the exhale) with every breath. Placing my hand on my belly helps.

Then, I begin to repeat the phrase “all is well” in my head as I inhale, and repeat it again as I exhale. As I do this, I retain my awareness on my breath and on the movement of my abdomen. I keep repeating this phrase and breathing pattern for a minute, or longer if necessary.

Slowing down my breath connects me with the present moment and automatically turns off my body’s stress response. Repeating “all is well” reshapes my thoughts and signals to my mind that I am safe, also switching my body out of “fight or flight” mode.

Basically, I’m assuring myself that there is no predator in the room, so it’s okay to relax!

Do you have any go-to techniques you use to regulate your stress response? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

Stress image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Catarina Andrade

About Catarina Andrade

Catarina Andrade supports big-hearted, ambitious women who put themselves last to create a balanced life that energizes them. She helps them ditch burnout so they can feel like themselves again and live life to the fullest. Watch her free online training ‘Stress Less, Live More & Make a Bigger Difference’ here.

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  • raychil

    Thanks for writing this. I never thought about stress like that, just that I hated it so much. I’m guna change the way I view it now thanks 🙂

  • Tscott Volz

    Fear keeps us safe from danger. Stress makes us sick.

  • Julie Rubio

    I would also love to hear techniques others use to regulate stress!
    I have never looked at stress this way. This email was extremely helpful. Thank you!

  • Christina McMahon

    This is great, Caterina! Love the idea of asking ourselves what stress is here to teach us, and the simple breathing and mantra technique to help us reset and get back on course. Going to share this on my Facebook author page!

  • Thanks for your comment Christina and for sharing! In the heat of a very stressful situation it can be really hard to remember to ask ourselves what the main message (or lesson) is, but we can always do it when things cool down so that we can avoid ending up in the same situation again 🙂

  • Me too, I hope other readers share! I love how different this can look for different people. My toddler sings, which reminds me of Happy Feet 🙂

  • Great comment – as I was writing this i kept going back and forth in my head about stress versus fear so I totally see where you are coming from. I even considered rewriting this! However, where I landed was: Fear keeps us safe from danger and the stress response is what allows us to react to perceived danger and get away from it. So, it is part of the mechanism that keeps us safe. This is the case for acute stress – but when we allow it to become chronic stress then it most definitely makes us sick.

  • Julie Rubio

    That is too cute! I will definitley share! Again thank you because you truly helped me throught a stressful time (:

  • Glad it was helpful, thanks for leaving a comment!

  • Austin

    Similarly, I’ve changed my interpretations of various songs or like to listen to my own interpretation instead of the song itself. I can hear my own interpretation to whatever music I feel like doing this to, I can make something mean something to me and I can also change from one relationship with an activity to not having one.

  • Diane Elayne Dees

    Also, the idea of “fight or flight,” which is part of our anthropological heritage (evolution is VERY slow) can more realistically be characterized as “fight, flight or freeze.” It’s the “freeze” option that creates long-term stress problems.

  • Andrea Gomez

    Oh this is so true! When we understand the biological reasons and what’s behind our everyday “autopilot” state we realize that we can shift our perspective ans change how we feel. The more aware we become to what triggers us and we work with it, instead of against it, the better we live.

    Thank you for sharing this!!!

  • Yes – it’s about realizing we’re on autopilot in the first place and becoming more conscious in our everyday lives. Thanks for your comment Andrea!

  • Our interpretations change all the time – without this there wouldn’t be growth, yes? Love this.

  • I learned during trauma therapy that my freeze response was the big offender for me.

  • I really love your “all is well” mantra and will be borrowing that for myself. I do really well to have some kind of go-to mantra to say to myself when I’m feeling stressed. One I use a lot when I’m feeling overwhelmed is “I have plenty of time”. It helps to remind me to relax and take things with more ease.

    Great article with lots of food for thought. Thank you Catarina!

  • Davidworld

    Wow. Someone once said to me you don’t find the right book; it finds you and that is exactly what happened to me with this simple but universally powerful article. Reading this was like taking a shower in the most purifying waters. By the end of it, I suddenly felt my own stress lift like a rain cloud and beneath came a brilliant ray of sadness that enveloped my entire being. The instant lesson: beneath the pig weight of stress is not only fear but a host of feelings that, perhaps in the moment, we don’t feel worthy to feel. Perhaps the adhesive what keeps stress in its place is shame and regret. Perhaps stress is the worst form of self parenting. Perhaps stress is the punishment that we feel that we deserve. Perhaps stress is the fear of success. Perhaps stress is the fear of living without it. To abandon stress would feel like we are abandoning ourselves and becoming minnows in a sea of orphaned souls.

    Perhaps stress is a form of drug addiction which is why it is so hard to give up. While it does help protect and love us in the most primitive ways, like the author suggests, maybe it is at times, an overprotective and overprotective mother or father ghost whose ongoing haunting program denies us the ability to feel our own breath, heat and soul.

    We all know deep down inside that we yearn for spiritual growth but if you trick yourself from believing that you are entitled to it, you will never experience it.

    Perhaps stress is a narcotic, that when taken in over doses, poisons our dreams, extinguishes our ambitions and punishes so we are relegated to live in the shadow rooms of our soul, which fosters a deep and abiding relationship with our imaginary friend who is made up entirely of past regrets

    We abuse the stress drug not only because we are ill equipped by nature to take advantage of it’s simple early warning system. We abuse it because we are full of self judgement and the propaganda that drops leaflets by the second into our brain that says simply: You deserve to fail.

    So as this author teaches, step one is to begin a primitive exercise in order to reconcile a primitive response that is confusing our very modern, disconnected, souls that are wall painted in the color of silent desperation.

    Primitive response to primitive response. A great, uncomplicated, clear road choice and so simple that I already have found unconscious ways to distrust it even as I write this. The monster that lives in the dank lake of our sewage system that mistake for beauty is just taunting me, trying to make me believe that I am wrong and it is right,

    And thus is the classic struggle that started at least a few years before the bible was created.

    Temptation. The allure of sin. The thrill of stampeding others in order to get what you want is always a tempting solution. Screw the people around you: get to that exit door by any means necessary.

    The trouble with these modern times is that we are all becoming robotic in our response to nearly everything. Even to mass murder. That is because we are wired for optimism. Without it, we would probably shoot ourselves in the head the second an oven cake flattens or our most trusted vacuum loses it’s trusted suction.

    We are all nothing more or less than a bunch of walking, talking file cabinets whose each and every memory packed drawers are full of reasons to embrace despair over love. And if you open more than one drawer at a time, the entire cabinet will just topple over you and crush your dreams.

    But don’t forget that when Frank L. Baum needed a name for the city that housed the Wizard, he happened to look over towards his file cabinet and his eye fixed on ther O-Z drawer. He enchanted the universe by seeing what was there—but wasn’t there at all. Or was it? Was it a literal sign? Or just plain ol, dumb luck?

    Choice. We choose our partners. We choose our jobs. We choose to plug ourselves, body and soul, directing into the computer outlets of the Matrix not to live but to live in the way that we think we want to when what we are really doing is denying any direct access to the poppy covered fields of our imagination. We are taking the easy way out. The “safer” way out. The way that gives us the illusion of self empowerment when all we are are the CEOs of a confederacy of imaginary dunces.

    And all that does is make us passive aggressive. So we allow Donald Trump to say whatever he wants, when he wants, inflaming the ignorant while we reduce him into becoming our beligerant drunk Uncle who at every family gathering just says the craziest darn things. What we are really doing is blocking out reality. We are turning our heads away from the direct danger that comes when you convince the average idiot that he is just as powerful as you. That is hatred and prejudices are justified.

    But since it doesn’t directly affect you and I, we become, instead, bemused audiences at the daily gladiator event. We become sloppy, slovenly, drunk with sugar while Rome begins to crumble all around us. We don’t watch reality shows: we take our own smugness and turn it into an evil judgement that allows us to feel superior—while we make morons millionaires.

    We spend all our energy slamming or demanding everyone we can, while we ignore the fact that each and every one of us are drowning in the airless charmer of sheer despair.

    We do nothing. We don’t even take to the streets when tiny children are slaughtered like pigs in Sandy Hook. All we have to do is say that they are in our thoughts and prayers…and then we get to move on to the next bloody gladiator games.

    We are shallow because we choose to be shallow. Yes, we are all legitimately tired and burned out—so much more than our rich banker friends who every ten days just need to get away to Beliz or Cabo because they are so deserving of time off for bad behavior.

    Step one, as the beginning of our quest to treat ourselves civilly, so we treat the rest of the world like that, is to do the simple ritual that this author prescribes which is decpletively simple and ridiculously complex all at the same time.

    Something this simple cannot possibly work! That is that sarcasm and modern day thought will counter.

    But it…and you…and me are wrong.

    Simple, in all it’s simplicity, is THE answer.

    Religion, if it works for you, is pretty much offering you the same thing. While in church or mosque or synagogue, you are disconnecting from modern day technology slavery, and returning to thoughts that were first preached thousands of years ago. A template was created then whose power is undeniable.

    So we are caught, basically, somewhere between Job and Steve Jobs. And the temptation of an Apple at any given moment is enough reason to pluck down your silver coins invest in someone else’s success so you can feel the temporary illusion of your own. Technology is not the answer. We reject what we really don’t want our need. We do not need 3-D or curved screens or 8K or whatever else CES has to sell us—in the perfect theatre of Las Vegas which is nothing more than an endless desert pair of dice.

    Simple. Turne to simple. LIsten to what this brilliant woman who wrote this article has to say. Uncomplicate. That is what birth and death are. Everything else is just a series of billboard distractions, exits and detours.

    Get off the super highway in the name of decency, honesty and the quest for self truth.

    There is not good or bad.

    There is only you. The entire universe as you perceive it is you. And that in itself is the grandest of all illusions because it feels so real.

    Well it’s not. It’s elaborate Christmas window dressing.

    Return to the simple. Embrace the primitive.

    Breathe.

  • Leslie

    Hi Catarina! my daughter is 13 months and I’m really struggling with what toddler-hood brings. Your post came at a great time. What I say when I’m in bed and worried, is “I am at peace.” And that’s been extremely helpful. I’m in need of more techniques though so I’m working on it! Thank you again!

  • Big mommy hug to you Leslie! That’s a great mantra to repeat and just thinking those words makes me feel tranquil inside. We get so little time in bed that we definitely want to make sure we are at peace then as much as possible. Meditation and yoga have helped take the edge off of tantrums – they’ve become an addiction actually 🙂

  • Thank you for your thoughtful reply and taking the time to share what this brought up for you. It’s too simple, and we don’t want to believe it – I wrestled with this too. Your comment reminded me of the book ‘The Bushman Winter Has Come’ by Paul Myburgh. I have a feeling you would love it.

  • I have plenty of time – that’ll cure just about any stress! Thanks for your comment and I will give that one a try next time I’m feeling rushed or under the pressure of urgency.

  • Thanks Leah – and thank you for sharing it. I think everyone can benefit from healing their relationship with stress.

  • Leslie

    Yoga and meditation!! Thanks!!

  • Becky0237

    I needed this today, thanks!

  • Quesh

    i am living in chronic stress for 7 years i am afraid of losing my self i feel stress symptoms 24 hours like headache pounding heart body shakes i want to ask can ever i get releived and these siple breathing technique will help

  • Hi Quesh – In addition to implementing these types of techniques, it’s important to address the root of what is causing you to feel chronically stressed and experience these serious symptoms. I suggest finding support with #2 above so that you are doing this deeper work as well, and supplementing any changes you make with rebuilding your nervous system which sounds like it has taken a big strain.

  • Great, thanks for your comment!