Research suggests feeling stressed can have an upside…at least some of the time.
There’s no doubt stress can be damaging, with chronic stress being linked to increased risk of depression as well as high blood pressure and heart disease. However, research is emerging that by accepting and embracing our stress response we may – at least sometimes – be able to turn it to our advantage.
Our ‘fight or flight’ stress response was designed to protect us and help us face short-term emergencies - and for short-term challenges it can still be extremely helpful. Research by the University of California, Berkley, for example, suggests a certain amount of stress can improve alertness and performance. ‘Stress can be something that makes you better, but it is a question of how much, how long and how you interpret or perceive it,’ said researcher Liz Kirby.
The problems often arise when our stress response is triggered too frequently and for too long, leaving us feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and strung out. So what can we do to try to change the way we respond to stress and the way it impacts us?
Take a breath: When you feel anxiety start to build, see if you can break an unhelpful train of thought by stopping to breathe deeply, even just for a few moments. There are some breathing exercises for stress on the NHS website and the Headspace app has also a free one-minute breathing exercise to get you started. Reframe the situation: How we view stress may make the difference to how we cope with it. A study in 2015 found that students who interpreted anxiety as being helpful reported less emotional exhaustion and performed better academically. While research by Stanford University found that embracing stress and viewing it as a helpful part of life, rather than as harmful, was associated with better health, emotional wellbeing and productivity – even during periods of high stress. It is not of course always possible or appropriate to view stress in this way but, where you can, see if it’s possible to reframe the way you feel about what’s happening by seeing it as a challenge rather than a threat - as something you need to manage, rather than something out of your control. Talk to a friend: The hormone oxytocin, which is thought to help dampen our stress response, is also thought to be enhanced by social contact. So don’t suffer alone, find a friend to confide in.
Avoid stress burnout: Many of the problems with stress arise when we can’t switch it off and it continues beyond a short, sharp burst. Regular aerobic exercise may be able to help here – it’s been found to help our brain’s fight or flight stress response become less reactive and to reduce anxiety.
Look after your gut: There’s evidence to suggest that the way we feel is influenced by the bacteria in our gut. Look after yours by eating plenty of fibre-rich foods.
Seek help: It’s not always easy or possible to make changes alone, especially if you are suffering from chronic stress or anxiety. It’s also important to identify and tackle any underlying causes of stress, for which you may need professional help. If you are feeling overwhelmed by stress it’s important to speak to your GP or you can contact mental health charity Mind for advice.
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