• Janna Lauer

Stress Management Part 5 of 5: Exercise and Eustress

Shoulder tension, neck soreness, headaches. I think it is a fairly safe bet that most of us have experienced these physical symptoms of stress at some point in our lives. When caused by stress, these aches and pains are often the result of muscle tension created when the brain is stressed and perceives a threat. The part of our brain that perceives threats responds by tensing different muscles in preparation for flight, fight or freeze. This process is the same regardless of the nature of the threat, be it a confrontation with a wild bear or being stuck in traffic. While we cannot stop our body in responding this way, most of us would probably prefer to skip the aches and pains. In order to do this we have to disrupt and release the muscle tension quickly, before it has a chance to take hold.

One of the most universal ways of releasing muscle tension is through movement. Perhaps it is a quick shake of the body after a stressful moment (or maybe that's just me) or maybe it is more formal like exercise at the gym. Moving will force your muscles to behave differently than they were in those moments of stress, which can help to ease the tension and prevent the aches and pains from building up.

This is a pretty intuitive concept and indeed, many clients I speak with often identify movement or exercise as a primary stress management tool for themselves. It is one of my primary tools as well. Not only does it help to disrupt the muscle tension, but it can also help us gain an important understanding of stress.

Abstract green background with text "Eustress is positive stress that results in growth"

There are actually two forms of stress: eustress, or positive stress that results in growth and distress, negative stress that can lead to damage and loss. With these definitions, the root word, stress can be understood simply as a lack of something. It is our response to the lacking that determines if an experience is eustress (positive) or distress (negative). In order to create more opportunities for eustress, we can practice our response to stress through movement or exercise.

While there are many different forms of exercise that do many different things for us, all of them, if done correctly, will increase our strength, flexibility, or stamina. In this sense, exercise is typically considered an example of eustress as it results in growth of some kind. However, as many of us know from experience, it can be distressful if we push ourselves too far and/or too fast.

Creating situations of eustress, requires a set of skills that can be honed through regular movement and then translated to other areas of life. This set of skills includes, non-judgemental reflection, needs identification, and adaptive resourcefulness. Perceiving stress as a lack of something creates opportunities to bridge the gap and expand our capabilities as we identify and support our needs.

In my own personal experience, I have found it easier to reflect on and identify my physical needs than my emotional needs, which is why I think movement is key to understanding and creating eustress. Your experience might be different. If so, you could of course practice these skills without movement, but you would miss out on the opportunity to release some of the muscle tension, get a change of scenery, and all of the other benefits that accompany exercise. However, if you insist, I will indulge you.

Take a moment and reflect on a stressful situation - maybe you are currently experiencing it, or maybe it was in the recent past. As you are reflecting, beware of the judgements that can easily creep in. Are you using subjective terms like, good or bad, or are you specific and objective about your experience? How would you describe the situation if it was about your best friend? We are often very hard on ourselves and add a lot of unnecessary judgements that create dead weight rather than add value to the situation. Next, when you are ready ask yourself, what do I need to make this situation more successful/pleasant? It could be anything or even many things, but for your own sanity’s sake, I recommend keeping your focus on one or two things you can honestly control. You might not be able to fix or even change the situation, but you will hopefully be able to see a few more options for yourself. The final piece is following through on those choices and creating a new experience for yourself.

Examples of eustress can include:  physical exercise, learning new technology, earning a certification, or making a new friend

While this process sounds simple - and it is - it isn’t easy. Most of us have been conditioned to be judgmental and hard on ourselves, these are behaviors that have to be unlearned and that takes time, just like it took time for you to learn them in the first place. This is why it was easier for me to start practicing with physical needs. It was easier to accept that I was not performing the way I wanted to because I was dehydrated, hungry, or tired. This not only helped me to be better about meeting my needs, it also helped me to be easier on myself. In addition, it solidified the idea from Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements, that “doing my best” would look different from moment to moment, depending on the circumstances. I could only do so much that day to make up for not sleeping enough the night before, but moving forward I could practice better sleep hygiene so I would be well rested more consistently. Eventually I have been able to transfer these skills to my less tangible emotional needs, like knowing when to reach out if I’m feeling isolated or lonely, or taking a break when I’m feeling emotionally exhausted.

It is a work in progress but as I get better at reflecting, identifying and adapting, stressful situations get shorter and shorter as I am able to disrupt them sooner. Stress will never completely disappear from my life or yours, but we can change how it affects us through practice.

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