National Stress Awareness Day: The Three Kinds of Stress and How to Cope With Them

Published: November 2, 2022
Category: Mental HealthMind/Body Well-Being

In honor of National Stress Awareness Day, here are some beneficial insights to help you gain greater awareness, acceptance, and efficacy in order to reduce stress’s hold on depleting your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Just like an emergency vehicle barreling through traffic with piercing sirens and flashing lights, acute stress activates our sympathetic response which allows us to respond to a stressful situation. However, that response is supposed to come to an end, allowing us to return to a state of balance, equilibrium, and homeostasis. Chronic stress occurs when this sympathetic response does not shut off. It’s also called toxic stress because it literally becomes toxic to our bodies. Over time, chronic stress has the ability to activate inflammation in the body and prematurely shorten our telomeres, small “tails” attached to the end of our DNA which naturally shed overtime. Chronic, toxic stress can speed up this process and it can even shorten our lives. This weekend, I attended the Global Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) Summit at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center. I heard a fascinating talk by Dr. Elissa Epel, renowned research scientist and author of The Stress Prescription and  Living Younger, Healthier, Longer: The Telomere Effect. According to Dr. Epel, the good news is that there are simple actions you can practice in order to change your reaction to stress by building stress resilience and promoting emotional well-being. These practices can help to fortify yourself against succumbing to stress’s damaging effect. 

It helps to know that not all stress is bad. There are three levels of stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic. Positive stress responses are designed to protect us from danger, such as being cautious before crossing a busy intersection where vehicles are moving quickly. Positive stress motivates us to prepare for an important exam or presentation. In both examples, positive stressors cause brief increases in heart rate and mild elevation in stress hormone levels. Tolerable stress is something we’ve all experienced, yet it can be buffered by supportive relationships, mindfulness practices such as deep breathing, yoga, aerobic exercise, or taking a walk to calm yourself down. Toxic stress is when someone experiences a prolonged exposure which activates the mind and body’s stress response systems without having the outlet of protective relationships or actions.  

In honor of National Stress Awareness Day, why not try to grab a few minutes to think about your experiences with the three types of stress. Consider some practical or new habits you can test drive to motivate you when experiencing stressors and to reduce agitation by minimizing the recurring negative impact of tolerable or toxic stress. Once we pause to have awareness and acceptance, we can decide what realistic actions to take to live less agitated lives. As Martin Luther King Jr. wisely said: “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, you just need to take the first step.” And, like so many Positive Psychology solutions, these actions only take a few minutes and will become more second-nature with practice and commitment.

I’m sending you strength and love,

Lisa

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