Dr. Kate Lyzenga-Dean here, back with our Holland PRIDE month mini-series about chronic stress. In part 1, we discussed the sneaky effects of chronic stress that impact us emotionally, mentally, and physically. Click HERE to catch up, if you didn’t read it yet.
In part 2, I’m going to do some myth-busting – specifically, we’re going to talk about why stress reduction isn’t necessarily the best path to a healthier you.
I know! Not what you expected to hear, right? Because it seems like stress reduction and avoidance is the obvious solution to chronic stress. If we could just get rid of the things that stress us out, we’d be in great shape! But it’s not that simple, is it?
First of all, stress can be good for us!
Exciting, thrilling, challenging, and FUN things also create a stress response in our body, and they sharpen our mind, help us grow, and boost all sorts of endorphins and other feel-good neurotransmitters. Imagine living without rollercoasters, nail-biter movies, the “runner’s high,” or the thrill of catching a glimpse of your new crush. These things are stressful, in a biological sense, but they aren’t necessarily unhealthy. Laying on your couch, eating takeout, and watching mindless TV may be relaxing for an hour, but spending your entire life doing just that is not healthy stress reduction, it’s pathological.
Secondly, stress avoidance isn’t always an option. In fact, most of us will always have some negative stressors in our lives – things and people and situations we simply have to deal with. It doesn’t mean we have no agency in our lives, and we certainly aren’t doomed to experience the negative effects of chronic stress. It just means that, sometimes, focusing on stress reduction in the midst of unavoidable stressors only adds insult to injury. It places an additional burden on an already weighed-down person, and can result in feelings of shame or failure which only serve to perpetuate the chronic stress response on a whole-person level.
Just for some context, here are a few examples of real people who were told that “stress reduction” was the solution to their symptoms…when it wasn’t.
- A 50ish-year-old woman who works part-time, takes care of her grandkids every Tuesday & Friday, and is “on call” 24/7 for her mother who has advanced dementia.
- A nurse who works 50 hours a week on a COVID ward because her hospital is so understaffed
- A 63-year old teacher who has to simultaneously monitor her students online and in-person, grade papers in the evenings, and just got a cancer diagnosis.
- A 21-year old college student who has no idea what he wants “be” when he “grows up” and is also juggling his studies, part-time job, and limited affordable housing.
- A 16-year-old, gay high school student at a conservative religious school who just came out to their non-affirming parents.
If I was in these folks’ shoes, and someone told me that I just needed to “stress less,” I would either laugh in their face or kick them in the shin, wouldn’t you?
So, what’s a person to do in these situations? If stress reduction isn’t the solution, what is?
Step one is learning how to stress better. Your body has a perfectly respectable system all set up to respond to stress in a way that benefits, not harms, your health. But when we don’t intentionally support this system, overuse it, or straight up ignore it, that system becomes dysfunctional – just like any other body system. And there are loads of strategies you can use to help re-train your stress response system to function better when faced with daily challenges.
Step two is creating stress resilience. I often hear folks talk about how someone “is” or “isn’t” resilient, as if it were a personality trait. But resilience is something we can all cultivate as part of an intentional, healthy lifestyle. For our purposes, resilience represents our capacity to withstand stress and recover from it. It’s our backup fuel tank, our reserves, our emotional, mental, and physiological “springy-ness.” Resilience isn’t only an attitude or a mindset, but an internal well of resources we can draw from (and replenish).
I’m going to share a bunch of practical strategies that will help you stress better and cultivate resilience in part 3 of our mini-series, but it’s important to first shift our thinking away from stress avoidance and toward supporting and retraining our stress-response systems. Because it gives us actionable steps to take, unburdens us from feelings of blame or shame, and encourages hopefulness despite the inevitability of stress in our lives.
Want a sneak peek at some of the strategies I use every day to stress better?
Sign up for your free Stress Better Starter Kit here: www.drkateld.com/starter-kit
And stay tuned for part 3 of our mini-series, hitting your inbox soon!
Dr. Kate Lyzenga-Dean is a Functional Medicine Healthcare Provider, Speaker, Writer and Consultant with a decade of experience in private practice. She offers a new perspective on stress-related conditions and, utilizing evidence-based, integrative, and CAM therapies, helps clients find root-cause solutions that actually work. An engaging and insightful educator, Dr. Kate aims to help her audience understand “The Why” behind any health challenge, resulting in a wider variety of treatment options, better compliance, and lasting results.