This is part 1 of a series that I will be writing about the good stress vs bad stress. Why? Because we all get stressed, some more than others, and how we manage the type and duration of that stress impacts every aspect of our lives. Either we become superheroes among mortal men or we succumb and fall into a pretty dark place. You will 100% experience both, that’s just what being human entails. However, you definitely want to be gunning for the good rather than the bad.
Today we look at the body and what each type of stress does to the meat suits that we walk around in. But first, we need to distinguish between good stress and bad stress…
Good stress or Acute stress is that which is over within a very short time period and is essential to growth. Think exercise, public speaking and being attacked by a wasp. The stress is either good for growth or self-preservation.
Bad stress or Chronic stress is stress that is long-term and unsurprisingly not great for us. It weighs us down and is detrimental to all aspects of health. Think financial problems, relationship issues or long periods of being sedentary.
As great as 21st-century life is, unfortunately, it also comes with a fair share of chronic stress and not enough acute stress. Our culture is built on the elimination of the difficult and the pursuit of the comfortable. Heated flooring, massive supermarkets and Amazon Prime are all great additions to our lives but they have left a gaping void in our needs for acute stress.
Chronic Stress and Acute Stress – The Body
Your body’s stress system has been cleverly developed over thousands of years to help you in acute stress situations like the ones mentioned above. It is not so clever however when it comes to chronic stress.
The body can’t distinguish between an actual physical threat and a psychosocial threat. To the body, a threat is just a threat. So any threats to things like our bank account or social status, which can happen very often and for prolonged periods, results in chronic stress.
When under stress, the body releases stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine to deal with the threat and tackle side effects such as inflammation. If the body and person are chronically stressed though, it gets used to the presence of the stress hormones and they can’t perform their natural ‘shock and repair’ response. This leads to chronic inflammation, a suppression of the immune system, increases in pain occurrences and unsurprisingly, is majorly correlated with depression.
Similarly, when the body is routinely exposed to acute stress, the same stress hormones are secreted. Yet since the stress spikes are short and significant, so too are the big releases in the hormones and then their disappearance. The body can then adapt and grow in a healthy way by releasing strong bursts at the right times, rather than a constant background noise of the stress hormones.
The body benefits from being in fight-or-flight mode when it needs it. Not from being in survival and threatened mode at all hours of the day.
Taking away chronic stress from your life and body
So how can you take out some chronic stress from your life and give your body a well-needed rest to be back to its best? Here are a few suggestions:
- Start with your diet – the body feels the effect of chronic stress through long-term imbalances. Replacing refined sugars and quickly-digestible carbs for healthy fats and protein can restore stability and balance to blood sugar levels as well as crucial stress hormones such as cortisol. Sugary foods + a stressful schedule = a recipe for disaster when it comes to stress on the body.
- Chill time – you are no doubt a hard worker and deserve some time to relax and reflect. Perpetual action is distraction from all of the other great things in life. Chronic stress can arrive when the mind and body are living in every other moment but the present and the constant worrying about the past and future creates a constant toxic system of inflammation in the body. As you may or may not know, inflammation is at the root of nearly every illness. Take a break, you, your body and the rest of you deserve it.
Adding acute stress to your life
Living with modern pressures and obligations can be difficult and certain chronic stress symptoms can be difficult to remove. Therefore, it might be a wiser idea to try and add more acute stress to your life to counteract those forces. Acute stress will keep your stress hormones at a sufficiently sensitive level to react properly when you need them the most, as well as removing background chronic stress that is breaking you down.
Adding acute stress isn’t particularly easy. I’m not going to lie to you and say it is. Acute stress is still stress. But all of the benefits for the body, mind, social aspects of life are too long to list here and are 100% worth it. Here are some ideas…
- Cold showers – I suggest cold showers because the temperature control is in your hands. However, if you live in the north of England like I do, you may only need to step outside in a t-shirt and shorts for your daily exposure to the cold and a good dose of acute stress. Cold exposure has proven benefits with regards to brain health, pain-management, longevity, fat-loss, athletic performance, immune health and mood. Not to mention feeling extremely awake afterwards. You can thank your stress hormones going mental for that.
- Breathing techniques – while various forms of deep breathing and meditation are known for combatting chronic stress, if you want to add in some acute stress wherever you are, you can try out Wim Hof breathing. Named after and designed by the guy who scaled Everest shirtless. Take 30-50 power breaths: powerful inhales drawing the breath deep into the belly, then just letting the chest fall with the exhale. Stop when you feel only slightly light-headed and a tingling in your fingers. That is the sign that you are hyperoxygenated. Take one more deep breath in and out and then hold at the bottom of the breath until you feel that gasp reflex. Then breathe in all that delicious air. That is 1 Wim Hof cycle and it jump starts almost every cell in your body. The process also releases the same hormones that coffee produces, leaving you feeling energised and alive from simply breathing.
- Exercise – a simple but effective way to finish up getting your acute stress. Whether that is lifting weights, kettlebells, chasing your dog or just going out for a run. They are all forms of acute stress that trigger growth and a happier, healthier you.