Stress & Emotional Health Part 2
In my book, Authentic Health, I describe my own personal experience with stress and how I came to the philosophies that I’m teaching in these posts. If you’d like to read my story, it’s available in the book.
I want to share with you that my study of stress and emotional health is not just an academic one. While I do study neuroscience, psychology, human behavior, cognitive behavioral therapies, mindfulness, and many other areas of understanding about our mind, body, and emotions, I am also a human being who has gone through many experiences in which I’ve had to deal with stress myself.
It was at one point earlier in my medical career, when I was under intense pressure, that I was forced to deal with these issues. I got to a point where I realized that every day I was being driven by a sense of fear. Even after I had dealt with the circumstances that created the situation, I continued to operate from the sense of fear. I had lost the sense of ease and well-being that I had once possessed.
As I began to recognize this, I realized how fear was taking my well-being from me. I was ruminating on the past or being concerned about the future, while working very hard to manage circumstances in such a way that I could reduce my future risk. I was doing so from a perspective of uncertainty and fear, not from empowerment and confidence. I realized I had to find a better way or I was going to continue to lose day after day to fear rather than experiencing the good things that were right in front of me.
That’s when I began to really study and understand stress. I also began to understand how our human mind is formed, and how our experience of well-being can be compromised when we’re overwhelmed by stress.
I also realized that stress is not all bad. During that period of intensive circumstantial stress, I developed many professional skills that have served me well since that time. I developed a certain amount of resiliency and an ability to take personal responsibility for the circumstances that were under my control. I’m grateful that I went through this period of stress because it helped me develop as a professional.
Stressors that actually produce positive results for us are known as eustress. This includes things such as exercise, brief periods of cognitive stress such as preparing for an exam or presentation, as well as hormetic stressors. Hormetic stressors include items such as fasting and cold and heat exposure which produce physiological responses that strengthen our bodies and our minds.
Our bodies are designed to deal with these stressors quite well. In fact, we genetically express a far more comprehensive version of ourselves when we allow ourselves these exposures.
It’s a bit ironic. Our modern lives are designed to eliminate any form of discomfort: we have climate-controlled homes, furniture that allows us to sit, and technology that can easily entertain us. However, despite the efforts made to engineer comfort, we’ve become more uncomfortable than ever. That’s because we’re designed to occasionally experience that discomfort and get stronger from it.
In addition, despite these engineered comforts, our population seems to be more emotionally stressed than ever. Rates of depression, anxiety, and insomnia, and levels of reported negative stress are much higher than in prior generations. Obviously, our efforts at trying to keep ourselves comfortable all the time are not working. Not only are we not physically comfortable, but we’re also very emotionally uncomfortable.
The quest for your best health will always involve stress. You’ll have to expose yourself to stress so that you can get stronger and allow your body to create the responses that improve your overall health and well-being. At the same time, overdoing your exposures to even positive stressors can end up resulting in health issues. Some people use exercise as a way of managing negative emotions. This is a positive action, but if overdone it can result in poor health. Too much exercise and not enough rest can result in downregulation of immune system function, biomechanical breakdown, and physical and mental exhaustion.
Everything must be kept in balance. We must assess both our positive and negative stressors and make sure that we allocate our energy appropriately.
In our next post, we’ll begin to discuss the negative stressors and the impact they have on us.