Stress can have both a positive and negative impact on your mental, emotional and physical health. In her book, ‘The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity’, Melanie Greenberg makes a distinction between acute and chronic stress. Basically, acute stress is not so bad. It is a response to a short-term stressful life event such as meeting a deadline, giving a performance or sitting an exam. This sort of stress response can have physical effects, such as butterflies in the stomach, or sweaty palms. But on the flipside it can give you the energy required to perform your tasks; it can be motivating and even exciting.
On the other hand, chronic stress is a condition that continues for longer than just a couple of hours or days.
For example, some jobs can be stressful in a chronic and ongoing way, like law enforcement or teaching. As well as this, there are many life situations which may contribute to our chronic stress, such as ongoing financial stress, health concerns, loss of a loved one, isolation, loneliness and facing an uncertain future.
Chronic stress can affect our ability to sleep which can lead to poor diet choices. Because we are so tired, we reach for caffeine and fast food to get by. In the long-term, this may lead to all sorts of health problems, which feed back into our feelings of stress. Our stress levels can also have a negative impact on our relationships which creates unnecessary discord between ourselves and our loved ones. Research shows that interpersonal disharmony can result in cycles of depression and anxiety. We now become stressed about the disharmony between us and our loved ones. We are out of sync and cannot co-regulate our emotional experiences, thus increasing our sense of isolation. From here, we find ourselves lying awake at night feeling stressed about our stress. We wake up tired. The cycle goes on.
When your stress response is switched on in this way for a prolonged period of time, we start to form a habit of reacting from that activated state. When this happens, imagined sources of threat can appear more critical than they really are.
Understanding what is actually happening in our autonomic nervous systems can teach us how to manage our stress, and recognise the difference between normal stress, and chronic overwhelm.
There are many useful tools you can embed into your daily life to help maintain healthy stress levels. Seeking help from a trained professional and learning about how to regulate your emotions, and return to a place of calm and rest on a regular basis can be a life changing decision for our health and wellbeing. Make an appointment now to learn strategies to manage your chronic stress. Learning new tools to combat stress will bring more balance and lasting change to your life, and one of the best investments you can make.
Jacqui Snooks is a registered counsellor and psychotherapist and director of Haven Counselling and Psychotherapy in Mornington. For more information please visit: havencounselling.com.au
Greenberg, M. The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity. New Harbinger Publications: Oakland, 2016.