Understanding Stress: The Good, the Tolerable and the Toxic

I don’t want to get too serious about this topic but it is an important one as we potter about on this increasingly strained planet. For better wellbeing and to adapt to the changing world we need to understand the good stress from the bad.

To help I would like to characterise three types of stress adapted from research by Bruce McEwan, Professor of Neurosciences and Behaviour at Rockefeller University.

Good stress is when we choose to do something that is a challenge: an enjoyable physical exercise; a project deadline that you set up for yourself; organising a travelling holiday to do yoga up a mountain in the Hindu Kush. These things can be stressful events; they are a challenge but you are up for it. We all know what good stress feels like.

Tolerable stress is when things happen that you prefer not to happen – losing a job or loved one; or the budgie keels over; or your partner continually nags you not to leave your underpants on the bathroom floor. It’s tolerable because you have the tools, the information and support network to deal it. We prefer such things not to happen as the resulting stress can be bad, but it doesn’t hang around for too long – the special designated underpants basket is in the laundry. Ok so maybe I shouldn’t make light of it, as this stress can overwhelm us. But it’s life – tough at times but we have to get on with it.

The third type of stress is Toxic stress. This is the one we need to address. It’s a more gradual, “creeps up on you” type of stress that diffuses into our lives because of the cumulative decisions we make over the longer term. Such stress is menacing as it regularly tips us off balance disrupting our natural body rhythms. Causes include bad relationships, pollution in our living environment, a crappy job, continual money problems, loneliness, lousy eating and sleeping habits….the list is long.

You can probably relate to all three types of stress and they may indeed blend into one another depending on how you live your life. But it’s the toxic stress that tends to linger – it’s insidious. Some of us create dramas of tolerable stress so we ignore the toxic stress. We know it’s there niggling at us but it doesn’t seem important. We are too busy, or can’t be bothered – any change to sort this stress can wait till another day.

Many people say life is more stressful these days compared to decades ago. I’m not so sure but I do think that certain stresses are amplified while others are less apparent. Whilst it may seem that the increasing pace of life causes more stress, we also have access to more tools that can help us manage the stress.

It’s important to note that some of us are more susceptible to stress because of our genetic makeup and/or childhood events that effect us to this day. The good news is that by acknowledging and understanding the stress in your life you are on your way to getting on top of it.

omg stress

So how do we manage stress? I see two main ways: Reflection and Action. Sort of like the Yin and Yang of stress reduction. Reflection is using quiet times to reflect on life and relax. Action is regular physical activity.

Reflection: It is very important you have regular times, ideally a daily activity, where you are able to reflect on your life and how you are travelling. It could include a place you visit – a sanctuary where you can find a bit of peace, meditation/mindful practice, conversation with a close friend where you get feedback (preferably other than a partner – sort of an unbiased take on where you are at) or counselling of some kind. But every so often you should include a time where you sit down, focus your attention and analyse your life. It might be only for a ten minutes and may include writing things down. It will help to consolidate your thoughts.

Action: It is pretty much universally established that regular physical activity is a vital key in reducing stress and maintaining good brain and body function. Such activity should be somewhat relaxed where you are not adversely stressing the body out. I say relaxed because you can do strenuous activity but still be relaxed in your mind and enjoy it. i.e. it is mostly not a chore. I like to walk in nature or park or even a quiet street. I am still amazed at how much my body misses going for a stroll.

Ok, I am going to be realistic here in saying that for a lot of us daily physical activity can be a difficult one – creating the time and the rhythm can be a challenge. But often it’s just a matter of getting over the first hurdle by setting it up and and starting. Once the rhythm is established it becomes more enjoyable. (The same could be said of establishing the regular aforementioned space for reflection/meditation).

As you put these two regular activities of Reflection and Action into play, they begin to complement and strengthen each other, propelling you in the right direction. A direction where you will find that decision making becomes clearer and you are better able to withstand pressures and meet the challenges of life.


James Wild

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