By UNMC, Central States
Center for Agricultural
Safety and Health, Omaha, NE
There is a “healthful,” stimulating kind and level of stress. It’s called eustress.
Susan Harris, University of Nebraska Extension Educator in Rural Health, Wellness, and Safety, says eustress assists in rising to a challenge.
“For instance, if you have a son or daughter who’s getting married, you will feel stress the day of the wedding,” Harris says. “Your body will produce cortisol, which helps you work through the day. The difference between eustress and stress that can negatively impact our physical health is the length of time we continue to produce cortisol.”
Cortisol is a natural stress hormone produced by the human body when we experience emotions such as fear, anxiety, or anger. The body’s response to cortisol is an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose, respiration, and muscle tension. Cortisol also shuts down body systems that aren’t necessary during a crisis, such as digestion and reproduction.
At normal levels, cortisol can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, and assist with memory formulation. This hormone also has a controlling effect on salt and water balance. For women, cortisol supports the developing fetus during pregnancy.
“These are all important reasons why cortisol becomes a problem when levels are sustained at an abnormal level,” Harris says.
If cortisol levels remain high for an extended period of time the damage to the body will continually increase.
“We tend to think that stress is only in our heads,” Harris says. “However, research has shown how greatly it affects our entire body.”
There are five different levels of stress:
1. Physical: Frequent headaches, difficulty sleeping, frequent illnesses and ongoing fatigue.
2. Emotional: Bitterness, anger, anxiety; loss of sense of humor and/or loss of interest in past enjoyable activities.
3. Behavioral: Acting out, passive/aggressive behavior, irritability, tendency to isolate self.
4. Cognitive: Intense focus on stress leads to inability to concentrate and/or memory loss; inability to focus.
5. Self-worth: Internal condemning voice that insists the person is a failure, unable to “do anything right.”
To help avoid and/or relieve stress, Harris recommends recognizing what circumstances can be controlled and which ones are beyond a person’s ability to control.
“We can only control what we think, feel, and do,” Harris says. “To manage stress, focus on those things and use some simple ways to help yourself destress.”
Destress activities include ensuring that proper eating, activity, and sleep practices are followed to assist the body with proper function.
When stress becomes extreme, talk of death and suicide are indications that it’s time to seek professional help. That is especially true if the stressed person begins giving away prized possessions and/or seeks to isolate themselves more than normal.
“If someone loses interest in something that was important to them and they begin talking about being a burden or feeling helpless,” Harris says, “don’t leave that person alone and find the necessary resources to get them some help.”
Online resources for managing stress can be found at extension.unl.edu/statewide/kearney/staying-connected-during-tough-times/.