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Stress isn’t good or bad, but it can have a negative effect depending on your ability to cope with it

You oversleep and you’re racing to work where you have an important presentation planned. You realize you forgot your lunch and you’re still regretting how you lost your temper with the kids this morning.

Let’s talk about stress.

We all have it. It’s a normal part of life and it comes in many forms, from anxiety over financial or family problems, to even some good stress that can motivate and challenge people.

The not so good news is that when stress builds up, it can affect health.

“Our world can be a rather stressful place to live in,” says Dr. David Pilon, psychologist and program leader, education and training for the mental health and addictions program, Nova Scotia Health Authority. “With fast-paced daily lives for many, balancing and juggling multiple commitments, keeping up with change and technology, to financial issues and concerns, many things can conspire to create stress.”

Stress, Dr. Pilon says, is the perception of a threat to an individual. “It could be a real threat or it could be a perceived threat. In essence, something is occurring and the individual feels threatened by it and needs to respond to that threat in some way.”

Good and bad stress

Though often equated with negative situations, stress occurs when both good and bad things happen.

“It’s not all bad,” Dr. Pilon says. “If life didn’t give us challenges from time to time, we might not have as many opportunities to grow, and develop new skills. Stress can energize and motivate in ways that can be most useful.”

For instance, stress can have a good impact if it helps motivate us to meet a deadline or goal. Or it could manifest in a reaction to good news.

“If I thought about leaving on a vacation in the morning, I could be distracted and agitated by what I need to accomplish before I am able to go. Getting past that perception to the excitement and anticipation of the vacation can have a good effect, if you can think about it in that way.”

Negative impacts

Bad stress, conversely, is something threatening that happens that could potentially overwhelm someone.

Dr. Pilon says it could cause a variety of negative impacts on the mind and body, from muscle tension to a racing heart, to feeling overwhelmed, or feeling anxiety. If strong or frequent enough, it could lead to feeling overwhelmed, and that can be bad.

“If we didn’t attempt to minimize stress and its impact, we could fall prey to any variety of health conditions,” he says, noting that if left unchecked, stress can lead to a host of problems from chronic headaches to insomnia, depression and physical health conditions that could become serious.

To minimize this negative stress, the person first has to realize they are stressed.“It’s an important first step, identifying that one is stressed, then identifying what the problem at hand is,” Dr. Pilon says.

To know if you’re stressed, try to recognize and be aware of your reaction to things. If you end every day feeling overwhelmed, fatigued and with tension in the body, clearly something is having an impact, Dr. Pilon says.

Knowing the source of the stress is key to developing ways to address it. “That’s helpful not only because it might address the problem, but it can also be helpful in and of itself knowing that you’re developing a plan to do something about the problem,” he says.

Coping strategies

A variety of coping strategies are available, including:

  • Physical activity. Exercise can help make the body healthier and in turn give more energy, making people better equipped to address what’s bothering them. Physical activity can also help improve mood, enabling the individual feel more effective at dealing with stress. It also promotes better sleep, which translates into being more effective at problem solving and adapting to situations.
  • Talking to others. “Sometimes, the very opportunity of expressing oneself can be a stress-relieving behavior,” Dr. Pilon says. Opening up to someone can lead to guidance and direction on a problem, including learning what others do to cope with stress.
  • Trying to think differently. If certain situations—such as public speaking or performing in some way—produce stress, it’s important to think differently about the situation so that you can adapt to it or change your perspective on it.
  • Relaxation techniques. Activities such as meditation or yoga are often beneficial in that they help bring a sense of calm and can promote greater clarity about a situation.
  • Imagery or cognitive strategies. Likewise, thinking about images such as a favourite beach scene from a past vacation, can result in positive feelings.

“There are many coping strategies. The important thing is to have a toolbox of those coping strategies,” Dr. Pilon says, as not every one is going to work in every situation. “Chances are those who have a toolbox are most prepared to deal with stressors.”

If these efforts aren’t successful, people can access mental health services and supports, particularly when stress becomes chronic, he says.

No one can avoid all stress. And it really isn’t about avoidance in any event, Dr. Pilon says. “Stress can be around any corner. The only way not to go into those corners is not to engage fully in life, which in itself can lead to more stress,” he says.

“It’s not so much avoidance [of stress], it’s developing coping strategies that can help minimize the impact of stress.”

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