Generally speaking, you probably don’t think of stress as a good thing, and being “stressed out” is likely a condition you try to shake off — for good reason. The truth is that chronic stress isn’t good for your mental or physical health, and can lead to serious conditions like hypertension, depression and even IBS. (Yep, we’re not kidding about that last one: Stress levels and stomach issues are often entwined in the worst way.)
But what if we told you that sometimes stress can actually benefit you — if, that is, you’re able to harness its positive side?
Like most things, stress exists on a spectrum. Too much and you might feel totally paralyzed and panicked; just the right amount, and you may actually be more productive and focused than usual, according to Dr. Oren Fuerst, an expert in the area of stress management and the co-creator of Serenita, an interactive personal stress management tool.
The Difference Between Positive + Negative Stress
Basically, Dr. Fuerst boiled the difference between “good” and “bad” stress down to the example of prepping for a test or a big presentation. “You don’t want to be frozen before an exam or not able to function,” he explains. “But on the other hand, you don’t want to be too calm and therefore not alert enough.” (Makes sense to us!) Furthermore, letting your stress skyrocket might actually disrupt your ability to pay attention and commit to the task at hand.
By now you might be wondering: What’s a gal gotta do to get into the ideal stress zone? We’ve got the deets on that too.
The trick is to take control of the tricky stress hormone, aka cortisol, which also exists on a spectrum of boons and drawbacks. Here’s the deal: Chronically high cortisol levels (and relatedly, high stress) are linked to stubborn belly fat, a weakened immune system and blood sugar regulation issues, among other health issues you definitely want to avoid. But when cortisol is functioning properly, the hormone can actually help your body react to crisis, keeping blood pressure levels stable (and even bumping up the body’s ability to fight off infection).
So, how to cap off your cortisol in the moment? Well, sleep, diet and relaxation definitely play a major role in the grander scheme of things, but — to return to the exam example — when you feel panic start to rise in your chest, one thing you can do to harness positive stress and keep from overloading is to get your breathing under control.
How to Get into the Positive Zone
Dr. Fuerst espouses what he calls the 3-1-6 method for managing stress levels. That means breathing in, ideally through your nose, for three seconds, holding your breath for one second, and then exhaling with control for six seconds. (Try that a couple times right now and pretend you don’t feel immediately more zen. We dare you.)
Okay, but what if you’re more interested in creating positive stress? Good news: There’s a breathing exercise for that too. “Rapid breathing can be used to incite stress and create energy and alertness,” says Dr. Fuerst. To do that, breathe in and out through your nose, inhaling and exhaling every one-to-two seconds. (We tried this, and about a minute in we were suddenly gifted with a weird ability to write entire paragraphs without checking Facebook. Increased focus: check!)
Of course, if you’re someone who suffers from chronic anxiety, finding more specifically targeted ways to get your stress under control is going to be key. But if you’re someone who is just looking to tap into the beneficial side of this often-mischaracterized state of being, consider mindful breathing to make your body’s natural reactions work on your own behalf.
“What people are calling ‘positive stress’ these days is sometimes just another term for alertness,” Dr. Fuerst added. Turning that on and off might take some practice, but it’s definitely a worthwhile superpower to have in your arsenal. You never know when you’re going to need it!
Got any tips for dealing with stress? Tweet us your best advice @BritandCo!
(Photos via Getty)