Good and Bad Stress: A Guide to Taming the Beast

Everything is good in moderation, and believe it or not that includes stress. We all have this fight or flight mechanism hard-wired into our nervous systems, and it can save our lives. It’s that automatic reaction that enables you jump out of the way of a moving car. In our bodies we experience a sharp intake of breath, our heart races, and a rush of adrenaline washes over us. We all know the feeling.

This is the rush that lovers of roller coasters, bungee jumping, and other extreme activities chase; it’s an example of good stress. Good stress gives our bodies a chance to process the increased amount of cortisol and leaves us with a little bit of a high afterwards. This same stress can be a great motivator to try new things and to push our boundaries. When we’re about to teach a class for the first time we experience butterflies, but after we’ve taught that amazing class? That same rush we just talked about.

Stress is a chemical reaction and sometimes we can turn against it, but other times it turns against us. Sometimes our fight or flight mechanism kicks in and we have no healthy outlet. Canceled appointments, traffic jams, unexpected work projects, looming deadlines, and illness are just a few of the familiar stress triggers we all know. We feel the stress bubble up. We grit our teeth. In some of us our blood boils, in others it causes us to retreat inwards and feel helpless and anxious. Living in our modern highly-pressurized society, truly escaping this kind of stress is probably impossible. However, by controlling our immediate responses we can take control of our day. So how can we not let stress ruin our days? How can we reduce stress to be just another speedbump on the road of life?

The first defense against bad stress is living healthy and staying active. This includes regular exercise, such as yoga, a balanced diet, and getting enough sleep. As fitness professionals, it is our job to teach good habits and help others find defense against life’s stresses so that they don’t become pathology in our bodies.

Here are some of my favorite tips for reducing regular stress:

  • 3-5 minutes of deep, full belly breathing before and after workouts. This will bring a deeper mind/body connection to any workout.
  • Listen to your body: it doesn’t always have to be ‘no pain no gain’. Going easier on yourself every now and then is okay; it will teach you to be easier on yourself outside of the gym as well.
  • STRETCH! I can’t emphasize this enough. Take time at the end of any workout to stretch out your hard-working muscles. This is especially true through the upper back and neck area, as this is where most of our stress sits in our bodies. Try putting on slower music, closing your eyes, and relaxing into your stretch rather than pushing or pulling.
  • Incorporate Yoga and meditation 1-2 times/week for a complete mind/body workout. The essence of yoga is that it teaches us to breathe, feel, listen to our bodies, stay present, and let go of judgment, competition, and expectation. These are all important elements in reducing stress and becoming happier in our own bodies.

Avoiding stress is probably impossible, but more than likely boring. Good stress can create the richness that we crave, and help facilitate growth and new experiences. Bad stress, on the other hand, will make us sick – literally. It will age us and make us feel incompetent. Being aware of how our stress is affecting us, and where it is coming from, is where our attention should be placed. The next time you find yourself in a situation causing stress, take a moment and be aware of your response. Is it helping or hurting?