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The Healthy Amount of Stress (+ How to Get There)    

The Healthy Amount of Stress (+ How to Get There)

Art by Andrew Wetmore

By Meadowlark Monaghan

This story was originally published on November 5, 2019.

Stress is one of those fun Darwinisms that I really would rather do without. I get it – homo sapiens needed stress as a chemical reaction to perceived threats to outrun prehistoric crocodiles or learn that fire, although an effective light source, will also burn the hell out of you. 

You see, our bodies course with cortisol so that we can fight, flight, or freeze during these scary situations. However, prehistoric crocs aren't really our concern anymore. We're more preoccupied with the planet burning, adult acne outbreaks, and the state of our Tinder relationships. Not to mention the stressors that are thrown our way without our brain creating them: racist micro-aggressions, gaslighting bosses, and so on. 

Cortisol, the stress hormone, was originally meant to give us this fight, flight, or freeze response to instant threats. We would then either die or find our way out. But, nowadays, we have smaller, drawn-out, constant stressors, so our parasympathetic nervous system doesn't react the same way. This causes our stress levels to bounce around, wreaking havoc on our minds and bodies. 

While that sounds like a bummer, I'm not here to stress you out even more because it's not all bad news. Although exposure to stress levels is vastly different than it was for our ancestors, there are ways to use today’s forms of stress to our advantage. 

LET ME INTRODUCE YOU TO: THE STRESS CURVE.

I learned this little trick in college, and it is one of my favorite tools to enlighten people to the power of “owning” your stress levels. The stress curve goes like this: think of a typical bell curve (otherwise known as a normal distribution) with the x-axis being stress levels and the y axis being performance (or, as I call it, productivity). For those who flunked statistics, it looks something like this:

Now, this shows us that with too little or too much stress, our productivity is at its lowest, which is basically saying: too little stress, like when you're fun-employed, keeps you off the top of your game, like when that fun turns into laziness and sleeping in until noon. On the flip side, too much stress, like during finals week in college, can also keep your productivity levels down, like when you’re so overwhelmed you curl into a ball and watch “Queer Eye” on repeat. 

But there is also an optimal level of stress, right in the middle at the peak point of productivity, where there is just enough stress, a little fire under your ass, to keep you on top of that to-do list, but not so much that you are overwhelmed and out of commission. This, my friends, is the sweet spot. 

You can train yourself to stay in this sweet spot by utilizing your coping skills. Typically, I tend to lean to the right side of this curve, leaning into too much stress, so it's my coping mechanisms or self-care days that help bring me back to that optimal level so that I can keep slaying my day without too much burnout. 

Coping skills are behaviors, thoughts, or emotions that folks use to respond to change, stress, or trauma. Essentially, they are the skills we use to combat negative experiences in our lives. And when we say "skills," we mean a whole plethora of things. There are as many coping skills as there are unique individuals in this world; simply put, coping skills will look different for everyone, so we encourage folks to find what works for them!

Here are some commonly utilized coping skills:

When I'm feeling the need to dip into my coping skills, I typically like to do different activities based on the types of symptoms I'm feeling. For example, my anxiety often comes out physically – we're talking stomachaches, the inability to sit still, and headaches. When that happens, I lean into physical coping strategies to combat the physical symptoms such as high-intensity interval training, going on walks around the park by my house, or deep breathing exercises. 

When my anxiety presents itself more emotionally or mentally, such as anxious thoughts, over-analyzing, or ruminating, I'll use more emotional/mental coping skills like writing, listening to a podcast, meditating (I prefer Headspace), or cleaning! Although cleaning seems like a physical task, when I clean up my immediate physical space around me, it feels like I'm cleaning out my mental space, too. 

The part that always keeps me on my toes about coping skills is that although I have a routine that works for me now - that doesn't mean it always will. Whether you know what works for you or not, it's important to be open and gentle with yourself when it comes to coping skills because sometimes we aren’t able to utilize the ones we want, or our bodies prevent us from doing so, or we wake up one day and they no longer work. Approaching self-care and coping skills with a playful attitude, challenging yourself, and trying new ones alone or with a friend can make the journey a lot more fun.

When trying new coping skills out or analyzing the ones you use now, you can tell if they are working for you when you feel better. But there are some strategies we engage in that are not the healthiest, like relying on our partner to make us feel better or drinking an extra glass (or three) of wine. The point of coping mechanisms isn't to diminish our emotions or block out our feelings, it's to employ strategies that allow us to lean into our feelings, address them, label them, and then move on. 

Empower Your Own Research

Good Therapy: Coping Mechanisms

Tune It Out: Build Better Coping Skills

Happy Not Perfect: Creating A Wellbeing Checklist 101

Quiz: What Are Your Stress Triggers?