When is stress healthy or unhealthy and what can you do about it?

A short-term (fight-or-flight) stress response is nature's fundamental survival mechanism, which enhances protection and performance under conditions involving threat or challenge. Consequently, it is unsurprising that research has shown that this kind of stress can be positive: it makes you more alert and helps you perform better in certain situations. However, experiencing enduring stress has detrimental consequences for your health: stress has only been found to be beneficial if it is short-lived. You may recognize chronic stress through experiencing a lack of balance in your life: for example, when you study a lot and cannot find the time for fun activities or relaxation, or when you experience other stress symptoms and they do not fade when the stressor ends. Chronic stress can manifest itself both physically and mentally, and the list below offers an overview of symptoms you may encounter:

  • irritability
  • difficulty concentrating
  • insomnia/ trouble falling asleep
  • quick, disorganized thoughts
  • feelings of hopelessness
  • feeling of losing control
  • low self esteem
  • anxiety and nerves
  • weakened immune system
  • increase in infections and illnesses
  • feeling tired and having headaches
  • changes in appetite
  • digestive problems
  • high blood pressure and muscle pain

When these symptoms persist, they may cause reduced mental and physical wellbeing, so to be aware of your stress is vital. You can use some of the pointers below to help you counter (chronic) stress:

  • Eat healthily, don’t drink a lot of alcohol and exercise sufficiently
  • Ensure you have a proper sleep rhythm and make time for relaxing activities
  • Share your worries with those around you and don’t be afraid to ask for help
  • Be kind to yourself, and derail your inner critic by acknowledging what you’ve already accomplished and giving yourself rewards and time to relax
  • Try to figure out what causes your stress, and think about how you can manage this: how high are the standards you have set for yourself? Ask yourself whether these standards are realistically attainable at this moment. Generally, the way you think about something determines how you feel and act as a consequence; is there anything you can change in this process to help you? (see the schema below for an example)
  • Become aware of cognitive distortions in stress, and change your perspective
Stress

Thinking

When you are stressed, sometimes you start thinking in ways that might be considered cognitive distortions. These distortions, for example “all or nothing thinking”, “catastrophizing” and “should-thinking”, can make you see things in a light that is not quite correct, but you may not realise it in that moment (for more common cognitive errors, check this website).

The way you think about something influences how you feel and how you act, so it’s important to be aware of the process that takes place when you are stressed.