Stress has become such a well-known marker for the modern life that it’s common for people to be chronically stressed and not even notice it. What is obvious to everyone else is not obvious to them. This is because the constant secretion of cortisol, the stress hormone, can numb a person to its presence.
To complicate the issue, there is also a positive type of stress—the stress that excites a fast reflex in a sporting event or that transforms a public speaker’s nervousness into a crowd-pleasing speech.
As a result of these two simple facts—a lack of awareness and a positive benefit when there’s a need for high performance—the devastating effects of stress are often overlooked. While it’s fine to learn how to cover up signs of stress in social situations, like learning how to stop sweating during an important job interview with an effective antiperspirant, it’s important to understand that there is much that we can do to mitigate the effects of harmful stress.
Here’s the thing: while eustress, the stress that helps in high-performance activity, is helpful, most of the time, we experience distress, the stress that ruins our lives.
Why Too Much Negative Stress is Harmful
Stress is inevitable–you need some level of arousal to keep the central nervous system online–but too much stress can damage your health.
Prolonged stress results in an excess of epinephrine which will compromise cardiovascular health. This, in turn, can damage your heart, resulting in a stroke or circulatory problems.
Stress can also lead to distressing emotional conditions like anxiety and depression.
Finally, stress can cause high blood pressure, chronic fatigue, and a weak immune system.
2 Simple Ways to Get Unstressed
- Learn mindfulness.
Mindfulness originates from eastern philosophy. Its original purpose was to help spiritual people control their minds so that they could understand their real, unlimited nature as spiritual beings having a human experience. Since its introduction into the western world, it has proved remarkably successful for secular purposes, too. Psychologists have adopted it as a way to help their patients deal with anxiety, fear, and depression, among other mental health issues.
Mindfulness is fairly simple to do and the more you do it, the better you get at it. In fact, it’s so simple that it often requires books and workshops for people to understand it. Our minds are used to complexity and when we are given a simple concept, it often takes some effort to unravel the idea.
In a nutshell, mindfulness is mentally observing yourself as if you were a third person.
By noticing what you’re thinking, feeling, or doing, you stop falling into reactive emotional patterns and discontinue dysfunctional behavior.
For instance, if you instinctively react to slow drivers on the road with anger, then mindfulness will make you aware of your out-of-control response to a mild aggravation. By noticing your tense knuckles on the wheels, by noticing your rapid breathing, and by noticing your negative thoughts and feelings, you suddenly see the absurdity of your overreaction. Your attention switches from blaming the driver in front of you to acute self-awareness of your own state. By becoming aware of your own response, you stop upsetting yourself.
- Practice meditation.
Meditation is sitting upright and paying attention to something. For instance, in an eyes-open meditation, you might observe how the flame of a candle flickers, or in an eyes-closed meditation, you might pay attention to the breath entering and exiting your nostrils.
Meditation trains the mind to focus on a single thing. As a result of this singular attention to a repetitive stimulus, your muscles relax, your breathing gets deeper, and your heart-rate variance becomes less volatile.
Besides a reduction in stress, the benefits of meditation include improved concentration and enhanced cognitive ability and increased self-awareness that can trigger life-changing insights. Meditation has also been shown to increase compassion and acceptance, as well as slow down aging by improving immune and cardiovascular health.
In conclusion, stress is such an everyday occurrence that it’s easy to minimize its harmful effects on our well-being. But if you try practices like mindfulness and meditation, you’ll notice that you’ll feel happier about your life and more productive in many of the things you do.