If you define stress as that crazy out-of-control feeling you get when you’re overwhelmed and under pressure, you’ve got it partially right.
Stress is your body’s reaction to difficult or challenging situations. Your heartrate increases, your breathing becomes faster, your muscles tighten and your blood pressure rises. You’re ready for action. It can create anxiety, disrupt sleep, contribute to overeating and alcohol addiction, and lead to depression. The long-term physical effects of stress on the body include a higher risk of heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
Although too much stress can damage your emotional and physical health, stress also can be positive and energizing. Learning how to work with stress rather than becoming overwhelmed by it is one of the best things you can do for your own physical and emotional health.
People who learn to interpret stress as a physical reaction that helps get the job at hand done rather than a negative feeling to be suppressed don’t suffer from many of the negative side-effects of stress. Those who also know how turn to others for support actually recover more quickly from stress. Even better, people who reach out and help others in stressful situations build a strong resistance to stress in themselves.
It might just be the sense of control that determines whether stress is manageable or overwhelming. For example, when people feel like their work has meaning, when they have friends who support them and when they feel that their actions make a difference, they might still be busy and under pressure but they suffer fewer negative side-effects of stress.
That sense of control can come from within, too. Learning to let go of perfectionism, and cut yourself a little slack can be a very effective stress reliever. A mindfulness meditation practice can actually reshape your brain so that you become calmer and better able to handle stressful situations.