Not All Stress is Created Equal 

May 26, 2021

When the word “STRESS” is mentioned in a room of people, you can almost be sure that you won't be met with smiles, sunshine, and laughter. Usually, the idea of stress is accompanied by negative feelings, tension in the body, and an overall sense of dread. 

Stress has historically been focused on how its excessiveness is toxic to the body and how it can seriously impact your health. In reality, not all stress is bad. (Stay with me.)

Learning how to cope with adversity is an important part of life. At a young age, infants and children are placed in circumstances in which their stress response is activated. These can include situations where they have to be carried by someone other than their parents or when they have to transition from home life to daycare. 

These moments of adversity are our early introductions to stress. Over time, with the help of supportive people, healthy environments, and breaks from stress, our brain architecture and nervous systems have learned to adapt, grow, and even thrive. 

It’s important to distinguish among three kinds of responses to stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic.

A positive stress response is a normal and essential part of healthy development, characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. Some situations that might trigger a positive stress response are the first day at a new job or learning a new skill or craft. 

A tolerable stress response activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury. If the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with supportive people, the brain and the body can adapt and recover adequately.

A toxic stress response can occur when a person experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as chronic stress, trauma, abuse, extreme poverty, a global pandemic—without adequate support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain functioning and other organ systems and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment. 

Are you stressed out yet? Don’t worry, there’s hope! I have a few strategies to buffer against toxic stress and cultivate a healthy relationship to positive stress. 

Develop and maintain predictable routines

A little predictability can go a long way. There is a lot of energy exerted in trying to think of “what is next?”.  When we develop routines in our day, we create a structure that our minds and bodys can sync up to. Instead of exerting energy on the unknown, our brains and nervous systems will naturally relax into a predictable routine, leaving more mental and emotional energy for other important aspects in our lives. 

Create daily rituals

Rituals are emotional pit stops for your day. When creating rituals, we provide ourselves with an opportunity to pause, connect with ourselves and prevent stress spirals. Rituals can be small and meaningful.  Like taking 5 minutes to set a morning intention or a stretching ritual to connect to your body during the lunch hour. Whatever you choose, it's your time to ground and connect with yourself. 

Nurture healthy relationships

Healthy and predictable relationships are one of the most important buffers against toxic stress. Being in a stressful state can feel lonely, isolating and even shameful. When we have healthy and consistent support systems around us, it helps us to stay grounded, regulated and connected. 

Although it has had a bad reputation, stress does not have to take over our lives. Examining your relationship to stress can help you get a handle on it and transform it.

With some routines, rituals, and relationships, we can buffer against toxic stress and cultivate resiliency, growth and happiness. 

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Wilhelmina De Castro, LCS

Mental Health Specialist

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