How To Achieve The 'Right' Amount Of Stress

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Stress is a basic fact of life. But that needn't be as depressing as it sounds.

Think about it — a certain amount of anxiety about getting the job done is often the motivating factor that actually gets college students to buckle down and study for exams, or gets journalists to finally send something to their editor. Stress, with the increased focus that it brings, gives a surgeon the edge and alertness that's essential for performing emergency open-heart surgery.

It's only when we experience more stress or anxiety than we can handle that it becomes a problem. But it's possible to get better at dealing with stress, making it easier to keep life in that optimal range where we have just enough stress to stay motivated but not so much that we get overwhelmed.

Stress itself is just a physiological reaction — not inherently good or bad. As seen in the chart below, we achieve optimal performance with a certain amount of stress, sometimes referred to with the prefix eu-, meaning good.

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The Health Burden Of Stress

That chart was presented by Joshua Riff, Medical Director at Target Corporation, in a forum on stress at the Harvard School of Public Health. Riff says that it's essential for employers to try and manage stress levels for their employees. "The right amount of stress works, the wrong amount of stress doesn't," he said in the discussion.

If someone's job isn't demanding or challenging enough, they won't be motivated to perform at their peak level. But if things are too overwhelming, performance begins to suffer again, and in the long term, it can cause serious problems.

Immediately, Riff says, too much stress causes depression and anxiety that sap productivity. In the long term stress also leads to health problems like hypertension and is associated with chronic health conditions like diabetes — all of which add up in both healthcare costs and lost productivity during illness.

For individuals, managing stress is just as or even more important. Developing the ability to cope with stress is essential for people who want to both succeed professionally and stay healthy.

Becoming Resilient

The idea isn't to avoid stress completely — instead, it's to become resilient. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as the process by which people adapt to or cope with stressors. Since resilience is a process, there are things that people can do to get better at it. Some strategies involve meditation, therapy, prayer, or other activities that help people gain perspective. Other activities, like getting enough exercise or sleep, are effective stress-coping strategies immediately, and if they become habitual, help people become more resilient in general.

A recent survey by the Harvard School of Public Health, NPR, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on the health effects of stress revealed that most people don't engage in expert-recommended activities to reduce stress. More than half of Americans don't regularly exercise or get a full night's sleep.

But many people are familiar with effective stress-reduction strategies. More than 90% of people who spend time outdoors or engage in hobbies find these techniques effective. The hard part is finding time.

The key, according to the experts on the stress forum panel, is just finding the best ways to incorporate stress-relieving activities into your own life.

If you are a parent, spend time running around with your kids, says Kristin Schubert, a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. That provides both family time and exercise. Riff's advice is to find 15 minutes every single day to disconnect from the technology tying you to the office.

Changing diet can help too. Some research shows that eating certain foods, like empty carbs, can cause physiological impacts that might make you more susceptible to stress, while healthier options make it easier for you to cope by keeping your mood in check.

Riff says that the growing realization that people need to build resiliency might be one of the most important developments. He says that anywhere from 30-50% of people report high stress, but only 6% of people are really trying to do anything about it.

Now that people are starting to talk about resiliency more, people are more likely to try and improve their own resiliency. In the end, Riff says, that may be the only way to keep up with the pressures of the modern world.



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