If It Makes You Happy…Can It Be That Bad?

Stress.  We hear about it everyday.  We know it happens to the best of us.  We may not be able to define it but we know it when we see it.  Usually, when we think about it, thoughts of hectic schedules, frantic days, unpaid bills, and unreturned phone calls come flooding our minds and start flutters in the stomach.  And, frankly, we’re not that surprised.  With today’s busy lives, we have come to understand that stress is an unavoidable part of our day.  We learn to live around it, manage it to the best of our ability, try to relax, and move on.

But, once in a while, stress throws us for a loop.  In times when we think we are happy and excited about things going on in our world, times that we have been looking forward to for ages like weddings, graduations, upcoming vacations, retirement – times when we wouldn’t expect to have those now-familiar headaches or upset stomachs – there it is.  Out of the blue.  Causing tightness in the neck, a churning of the stomach, and edginess in our mood that we just can’t seem to understand.  At this point, human nature in response to things that we weren’t expecting to happen is to either over-analyze it (and consequently get more anxious about it) or ignore it.  And, so, we either steal our own joy by worrying about why we are worrying or we continue to allow stress to impact our bodies and our minds.

Well, what if I told you that “positive stress” is just as common and expectable as the stress that we usually think about.  “Positive stress” is a normal stress reaction in the body in response to things that are going on in our lives that are good but, nonetheless, anxiety provoking.  Like everything else, with good comes bad.  As we think about the wedding being planned, we may also think about the change in our lives or relationships it might bring.  As we prepare for a graduation or a retirement, we may think about what happens next or what happens if I don’t like it.  As we pack for that much awaited vacation, thoughts of unfinished business or being away from loved ones may float through our heads. 

Whatever the stressful thought, the effect this thought will have on physical and psychological well-being is about the same.  Stress causes decreased immune function, headaches, increased blood pressure, increased risk for “stress-related” illnesses, decreased ability to cope with life situations, and decreased relationship satisfaction.  Psychologically, stress can lead to anxiety, agitation, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and compulsive behaviors (such as over spending, over eating, or over drinking).  Positive stress also has the unfortunate effect of not allowing us to fully enjoy the happy moments of our lives.   

So, if it makes you happy, can it be that bad?  Yes, if you don’t take the time to acknowledge that happy moments in life also have stressful components.  If you expect and accept that even in positive situations there is stress – and take the time to take care of yourself – then you can minimize your positive stress and maximize your ability to participate fully and joyfully in the things that make life worth living.

Developing a Self-Care Plan can help with managing both positive and negative stress:

1.      Practice relaxation techniques to decrease body tension and manage stress (go for a walk or exercise, read an interesting book, journal) – take time for yourself in the midst of whatever you are planning.

2.      Reach out for your family and friends for relief, distraction and pleasure.

3.      Get it off your shoulders and on to paper – keep a journal of thoughts, feelings, and things to do.

4.      Get enough rest and sleep.

5.      Smile!  Don’t forget to make time for play and enjoyment of the moment.

6.      If you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired – HALT before you make any decisions and think things through.

7.      Don’t be your worst critic.

8.      If things feel simply overwhelming, consider contacting a professional to help you refocus and problem-solve.

The outcome of an effective self-care plan is improved health and sense of well-being, increased self-care behaviors, higher productivity, efficiency and effectiveness in achieving goals, improved communication and improved satisfaction.

The bottom line is:  There is no such thing as Stress Elimination Training – there is only Stress Management Training.  If we can expect it and accept it as a “normal” part of what is happening in our lives, we can understand it (and avoid over-analyzing it) and respond to it (instead of ignore it) in such a way that will improve our experience and our health.

About drirene

Dr. Irene is a Licensed Psychologist with offices in Boca Raton and Coral Springs, FL. She focuses on helping people manage their stress so that they can live healthier, more productive, more satisfying lives.
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