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Written by Cheryl Schwieters , BS, LPTA, CSCS
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Cheryl SchwietersStress….just saying the word elevates my blood pressure sometimes. But did you know thatstress is a natural process that occurs within our body and can have positive and negative effects? When working properly it is our body’s natural way of protecting us. It allows us to stay focused energetic and alert. Whether it be staying on task to finish a big project or mustering up enough strength to sprint to an emergency and somehow lift a car off a pinned child.

But beyond a certain point stress will crest the top of the hill and no longer help our body but start to damage it. This can be global and spill into not only your mood, but your relationships and eventually your quality of life.

The stress response is your body’s way of protecting you and is affected by not only physical stimulus but mental and emotional as well. When levels are high in any of these areas, yourbody is designed to kick it up a notch and begin an automatic process called the “fight or flight”response. Quick drill: grab a piece of paper and write down all the things in a normal day you may view as a stress on your body, mind and emotions. Here’s what mine looked like today and I would guess yours may look somewhat similar:

  • Got to bed late because of all the noise with Halloween
  • Busy day at work rushing around dealing with patients and their injury
  • Gas light went on when I got in the car
  • Pet got sick in the house
  • Forgot my lunch
  • Morning and evening commute 
  • Thinking about bills that need to be paid
  • Need to get to the grocery store because we are out of milk
  • Kids need to be dropped off and picked up from school.

And this is only a small snapshot. If you are like most people, your stack is comparable to mine and then some! Makes for a pretty heavy load while walking around don’t you think?

Now, imagine the extra weight you pile on thinking about and doing a workout on your lunch hour, beginning a new eating regimine, worrying about body image. Are you able to keep going or did you just drop to the ground with all that weight? All that stuff, good or bad is called your allostatic load.The good stress makes you stronger and ultimately allows you to feel good. Exercise, meditation, good experiences. All things that may be a little uncomfortable when you do thembut ultimately make you feel good after you are done. Good stress is:

  • Short lived
  • Infrequent
  • Over quickly (minutes or hours)
  • Inspires into action
  • Helps build you up and leave you better than before

Bad stress is exactly the opposite and can even be related to the good stuff. Getting outside at lunch for a quick run may help you decompress but performing that same run for 4 hours a daytakes on a whole different outlook.

GettyImages 524473113Bad stress is:

  • Chronic in nature
  • Lasts a long time
  • Negative
  • Constant
  • Breaks you down

How can you tell if stress is good or bad in your life when sometimes things that feel good are long lasting and others are short lived but you feel are negative? It really comes down to how you recover from the stressor. If you go for that long run and following are not able to performany activity and your stomach is a wreck for the rest of the day well, you can’t quite manage that very well can you? However, if you look at that daily run as a challenge, prepare, stretch, takewalk breaks if you need them and follow up with a nutritious recovery meal that may be a whole different story. You may feel exhilarated and strong. Ready for the next challenge. Factor that affect our tolerance to stress can be:

  • Previous experience - bad or good memories from the same activities
  • Attitude and outlook - are you optimistic or a glass half empty kind of person?
  • Perception of control - do you feel trapped and unable to change the situation
  • Personality - confidence in yourself assists in feeling less vulnerable
  • A good support network - Do you have family, friends, even pets you can unload on or divert your attention to what is stressing you?
  • Our allostatic load - all those physical, mental, and emotional situations we are dealing with.The more we have to manage, the more we might start to break down.

So we want enough good stress in our lives to keep us alert, motivated and happy but we don’twant to overload so much that we begin to show signs of burnout. Remember, this applies to allareas of life - family, exercise, nutrition, work life. And it is unique to YOU and how you can handle your allostatic load. So if your plate is already full, there may not be much room for anything else before everything starts to slide off.

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