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Did you know that there are actually  two kinds of “stress”? Eustress is the “good” kind of stress—the thing that gives you a little push to keep moving forward.  Distress is the kind of stress that wrecks havoc on your life and health.

Sometimes events present themselves  as distressing—an illness, an abrupt change in a work situation, or a shift in your relationship—but sometimes eustress can cross a line, becoming distress . Meaning an events or opportunity that started off as exciting and challenging  gets out of hand and becomes overwhelming and upsetting. Distress.

In the United States, we seem to focus only on distress, and have dubbed all kinds of pressures as “stressful.”  We do this with good reason: it is a top health concern for Americans, who, despite living in the land of the brave and the free, are among the least happy, least healthy people in the world.  Distress causes internal inflammation, which is the root of numerous diseases including cancer.

Many things can create distress, but the top 10 causes are childhood trauma, death of a loved one, divorce, finances, job, health, personal relationships, having a chronically ill child, pregnancy, and danger.

Behavioral symptoms include over-eating, loss of appetite, smoking, and negative coping mechanisms.

Personally, I have suffered from stress due to childhood trauma.  As an adult, I recall sitting on the subway with a friend, and having her look at me and pronounce, “you’re deeply stressed.” At the time, her comment angered me—I felt judged. I interpreted it as her saying, “you’re no fun.” Worse yet, I felt alone in her pronouncement.  She offered no solutions, and I don’t think that had the resources to.

Regardless, she was right. I was deeply stressed.

Chief among my own symptoms were gastric problems like irritable bowel syndrome (I.B.S.), coupled with emotional over-eating.

Here in New York City, it appears that people are most distressed in the present moment by their jobs, finances, and how those things impact their lives.

On a recent trip to France where I was co-leading a retreat, I found out that it’s illegal to work there for more than 36 hours a week.  Can you imagine if they instituted this rulein the United States?!?


Handling Distress

On a physiological level, distress creates internal inflammation, which wrecks all kinds of havoc in the body. Anything that you can do for stress-reduction (relocate to France, anyone?) is a terrific idea for the long-term view of your health.

Once upon a time, I felt overwhelmed by chronically taking on more than I could handle. Anyone else out there incapable of saying NO! To a project, a request for your time, resources, energy, or help, or the enticement of a second job, or going back to school while working? That was me. If that’s you too, then this tip is pertinent.

 Take on only as much as you can accomplish to the level that you feel proud of personally. Learn the art of saying “No!” to other people, AND to yourself. 

Learning to do this can be a real balancing act! You might regret letting an opportunity pass, but the trick to this is two things.x. First, know that it will most likely not be your last opportunity. Other things will come your way! Second, image the distress that you will feel when you don’t have the time to do what you promised with a level of commitment that you feel proud of.

You might feel guilty for not supporting the person who is asking for your contribution.  Still, imagine the alternatives of procrastination, over-working, potentially not doing your best, and how those feelings will stack up against the momentary feel-good of saying “yes” to a person.

Handling Eustress

Now I’m really going to confuse you and flip my own advice.

Imagine that you want to grow in your life—have a job with more responsibility, a relationship, family, or start another business. Well, that is going to create eustress.

And undoubtedly, you  will always be chronically doing more than you realistically can at the top of your game.

I’m in that situation right now. I have too many things going on at the same time, specifically around growing my business, in not one but THREE new directions. Why would I do this? When I evaluated the situation according to the advice that I gave above (say no, do only what you can at the top of your game), I realized that the things that I want to do have their own time-frame. If I chose to wait, the time for the projects to live their own lives might pass. And so, I have stepped fully onto the deck of overwhelm.

Growth is a stressful experience. I think that we like to soothe ourselves thinking growth and change will be easy if everything lines up just so. It’s not true. It will always create eustress; the real test of our maturity is how we handle that eustress.

If you’re in this situation, where the demands of your life are maxing you out—in a good way—then this tip is for you.

Create support structures all around. Delegate when you can.

I’ve hired an assistant. This has been a long time coming. There will be challenges in learning to manage this person. But in the long view, if she can help me now, she will help me grow even more.

I’ve accepted that things will be a little bumpy. Perfectionism not only creates distress, it halts steady forward progress.

Learning to delegate creating a slight ease in my mind and my schedule.  Just a few nights ago, I was worrying how to book a private client, and then I realized—that’s my assistant’s job now! Hurray! Maybe I could go take a yoga class, and take care of my own needs for a moment, so that I am more on point for my classes, students, and clients.

And at the end of the day, I like Michael Pollan’s advice for, well, everything.

  1. Drink more water
  2. Eat more vegetables
  3. Sleep more

These practical tips will help your body to handle the twin challenges of distress and eustress.

Erica Mather, M.A., E-RYT 200, is a lifelong teacher. She has been teaching yoga in New York City since 2006. Erica created “Adore Your Body,” a Signature System for addressing body image challenges, and is the Founder of The Yoga Clinic NYC. Check out her website and follow her on Twitter.

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