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How to use stress to help, not harm, your health

If you’re a senior executive, or a competitive, stress is probably a normal part of your schedule.

However, too often it is chronic stress that can result in symptoms that range from headaches, gastrointestinal upsets and anxiety and depression to frequent infections, and insomnia.

In fact, chronic, unresolved stress – distress – can increase your risk of minor illnesses such as colds, as well as serious diseases such as cancer, heart disease and autoimmune conditions.

So it may come as a surprise that a little stress may be just what the doctor ordered.

Here’s what we know about “good stress”, or eustress, and how it can help you stay motivated, or even increase your cognitive performance.

Stressful situations can build resilience

Post-Covid, and the massive shock to both the economy and our psyche, resilience is the new must-have for high performers.

It’s a skill that allows you to survive physically, mentally and emotionally in a fast-changing world, one where the future has never been more uncertain. 

Researchers have found stressful events can promote personal growth and increase your sense of self, strength and mastery.

In short, short-term, stressful challenges can help you develop as a person and a professional.

Stress can make you smarter

Feeling anxious about an important event, or project, can actually boost brain function, say scientists.

A study by the University of Berkeley found that small amounts of stress can push you to peak alertness and cognitive performance.

When you face adversity, physiological arousal is raised and attention becomes narrower.

The fortunate result is that you are better equipped to focus on the task in front of you, and that can mean that you have a competitive edge.

More good news: the impact of this short, sharp stress also strengthens the connection between neurons, improving attention span as well as memory.

That is in direct contrast to unresolved, chronic stress that, besides its other ill effects, elevates glucocorticoid hormones suppressing the production of new neurons in the brain’s hippocampus and impairing recall.

The fight or flight response may boost your immune system

Moderate stress stimulates the production of chemicals called interleukins. These help give your immune system a short-term boost, possibly just when you need it.

Short-term stress may also produce hormones that rebuild cells and leave your body healthier than it was before.

This immune-stress link is currently being explored by holistic therapists, such as Wim Hof, who advocate the use of physical stress such as extreme cold to build resistance to disease as well as physical and mental resilience.

It all depends on how you look at stress

If you view a challenge that could be stressful, such as negotiating new contract terms, performing in a high-pressure event, or presenting to a critical audience, as absolutely stressful, you are buying into a predictive stress response.

That’s because our brains control our physiological responses, with our thoughts or emotions giving them cues.

Instead, see these situations as challenges, and the stress that you experience can be associated with better health, emotional wellbeing and productivity.

Of course, some stresses, such as illness or serious financial woes, are inherently stressful and it’s at times like those that professional help and support can assist you to minimise negative impact.

Eustress versus Distress

Is short-lived
Can motivate you Feels exciting
Is something you can cope with

Triggers chronic worry or anxiety
Feels unpleasant
Makes you ill
Can last into the long-term

Ways of dealing with distress
1.   Postpone major life changes
2.   Resolve personal conflicts
3.   Do things you enjoy
4.   Control your work
5.   Exercise regularly
6.   Get support
7.   Remember to relax

Credit: Beyond Blue


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