The stress system is much maligned and misunderstood. Knowledge of the stress system should help identify it as our friend. This article will explore the role of stress system in our lives. This understanding should allow us to make use of the stress system when we need it and help us understand why we should be careful not to overuse it.
Imagine you are giving a crucial test and that a lot is riding on it. You want to focus and concentrate all your energy to make sure you put in your best effort. You want to make sure that you do not feel hungry or have the urge to go to the bathroom while giving the test. But how do you put your normal biological processes on a temporary hold? The answer lies with the stress system. All you have to do is invoke it! Once the stress system is invoked it will orchestrate for you all the behind the scene activities needed so that all your energies are focused on the test. Without the stress system it is not possible to accomplish anything of significance.
The stress system can be viewed as an “energy booster”. This is because the stress system is able to divert energy from other routine tasks and channel it towards a single purpose. When this is done properly amazing results can accrue. We all are aware of times when we are “in the flow”. When this happens it appears as if we lose track of time. All distractions and worries fall by the wayside. We are entirely focused on the task we are doing and our creative juices begin to flow. Only when the task is completed we realize the amount of time that has passed and are amazed by the amount and high quality of work accomplished. This would not have been possible without the stress system being fully activated and channeling all our energy into the task we were doing. After the task is accomplished we feel exhausted but exhilarated. There is a feeling of accomplishment and though we feel drained at the moment we would love an opportunity to get back into a similar kind of flow and have our creative juices flowing in the same way again. This is an example of “good stress” and we would all love to have “good stress” in our lives as it makes us productive and useful.
On the other hand there are plenty of examples of “bad stress”. There are times where we know we have to get going on an important task but cannot find the energy and focus. We worry about the result and find ourselves distracted. The creative juices are simply not there and we find ourselves mired in confusion and error. The flow of thoughts and ideas is missing and our actions seem disoriented and error-prone. Our stress levels rise but nothing productive seems to come out. Eventually we give up in frustration. Our energy is drained and we feel low and burnt out. We never want to be in such a position again and dread the notion of taking up the unfinished task one more time. This is an example of “bad stress”.
So the question is: how do we get into situations that create “good stress” and avoid those that produce “bad stress”? The answer lies in the following two key factors:
- In situations of “good stress” the focus is on the task at hand. While in situations of “bad stress” the ego gets in the way and generates fear, worry, and anxiety. Here is a simple equation: Activity + ego = Bad stress; Activity + no ego = Good stress.
- For us to get “in the flow” the available energy levels need to be high. This means we need our house in order. We must take care of our emotional, spiritual, and physical health. It is important to realize that every time the stress system is invoked it is like making a withdrawal from a bank account. We want to make sure that the bank account is well funded to be able to meet any withdrawal needs that may arise.
Chronic stress results when we are continuously making withdrawals but no deposits This is an important idea that bears repeating. The stress system does not create energy. It borrows it. This is done by halting essential tasks and postponing routine repair and maintenance This works fine if the diversion of energy is temporary and normalcy is restored soon.
Chronic stress can be dangerous as repairs and maintenance can be postponed for only so long before real damage results. If this continues for a long period then this can turn into a stress trap. This is when we find ourselves so depleted that we do not even have the minimum energy needed to get out of the bad situations we find ourselves in.
This brings us to a key distinction between good and bad stress. After an episode of good stress, it is easy to disconnect and return back to normal. Let us say you were playing a game of chess for a few hours. After the game is over the system reverts to normal. This is good stress. However in the case of bad stress, there is no easy way to disconnect. Let us say you have an emotional argument with your partner. The stress involved in taking part in the argument is bad stress as nothing positive comes out of this type of energy use. After the argument is over, the bad feelings simmer and stress continues. There is no easy way to disconnect in case of bad stress.
Yoga has a key role to play in managing our stress system. Yoga can help regenerate and revitalize depleted energy levels. It can also help you to disconnect from bad-stress situations that would otherwise continue to fester. And it can help with situations where you find yourself in a stress trap because the energy investment needed to do yoga is much less than say going to a gym.
When we understand the distinction between good and bad stress we have the tools to make positive use of stress and avoid its downsides. When we learn to manage stress effectively both love and success flow into our lives and our lives are considerably enriched.