Stress: the good, the bad, and what to do about it

Andrew Badham 2018-08-13 12:28:48

There is a strange paradox in life that our weaknesses can also be our strengths. In certain circumstances, what was once a hindrance is suddenly a clear advantage. Now that I’ve opened with a sufficiently vague statement, allow me to be more specific; I’m talking about anxiety.

It’s an important topic to cover considering the sheer volume of people who suffer from it. But, I catch myself when I say “suffer” because anxiety comes packaged with some benefits. You see, anxiety is characterised by a high-stress state and, although stress gets a lot of bad PR, that’s not necessarily negative.
Stress is simply a heightened state, neither good nor bad. If you become excited about an upcoming event your body will act in a very similar manner to if it’s nervous. Basically, your body prepares for something it thinks is rather important.

This is where anxious folks have a real opportunity; the fact that they experience more of their day as important means that they are likely to pay more attention to it. The increase in stress hormones acts as a performance enhancer. It’s exactly the same as a sportsperson amping themselves up to play a game, the jitters are a good thing.
Of course, prolonged stress can be a bit too much to handle for many people. When you’re running in these elevated states for extended periods of time there’s a cost. It’s like sprinting; you can run really fast but, if you don’t stop for a breather soon, you’re going to fall over. Likewise with work, if you can’t bring down and manage that stress response, you will burn out.

So what can you do about it?

Start with the basics. Stress can so often be brought on or agitated by poor health and that doesn’t have to be something as serious as sickness; sometimes it’s as simple as skipping a meal. Many folks struggle with hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) and anaemia (low iron) both of which are conditions which can seriously swing your mood. So, make sure you have a meal plan that gives you a variety and a sufficient amount of fuel.

Similarly, make sure to get your beauty rest – or more importantly in this case – your performance rest. Health practitioners recommend getting between 7-8 hours of sleep a night, not an easy task with a busy work schedule. Nevertheless, insufficient sleep can seriously affect your stress levels which can become a vicious circle. Cortisol, your stress hormone, keeps you more alert at night which prevents you from falling into deep, restorative sleep.

Part of what keeps us up at night is mulling over either stressful events that have already happened or the ones that we dread in the future. Yet again, that capacity for worry helps to adequately plan and anticipate events, which is super helpful. Still, if it gets out of hand, it can seriously interrupt rest time.

A possible solution to this is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is an exercise in being present, which is the opposite of worrying. When we worry, we visualise and simulate the past or possible future in our minds. By practising bringing your attention to come back to the here and now you strengthen your ability to stop your mind wandering on to unpleasant thoughts.

Lastly, go get some rigorous exercise. No, some gentle yoga won’t cut it. Your stress hormones are performance enhancers, physical performance enhancers. So, go burn them up at your local gym or run them off on the streets, either way, get your heart pumping and tucker yourself out. There’s no better way to stop worrying about your deadlines than by worrying if you’ll survive the next set. Jokes aside, both cardiovascular and strength training have been shown to decrease anxious and depressive symptoms. It is by far the most effective non-medical solution there is to this problem.

Just remember, these heightened states of stress and worry are good things. They help us to perform and achieve, and part of maximising those qualities is understanding that they are beneficial. But like any superpower, you have to know how to control it. So go out there and kick some ass, just remember to kick a chill afterwards too.


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