Coping with Life Changes

Managing Good Stress (Yes, You Need To)

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

People most commonly associate stress with difficult times – death of a loved one, losing a job, receiving a devastating diagnosis. But it also occurs on the heels of a happy shift. In fact, many of the best times in life – starting a new job, getting married, welcoming a new baby, moving to a new home, or entering retirement – come with an unwelcome side effect: stress.

“From a physiological perspective, our bodies don’t differentiate between good stress or bad stress,” says Eric Bacigal, who leads employee health and wellness initiatives at Henry Ford Health System. So whether you’re on the heels of a divorce, or you’re about to say “I do!” you will likely experience the same physiological symptoms – things like difficulty sleeping, poor appetite, even weight loss or gain.

No matter what the cause of your stress, good or bad, these five strategies can minimize the toll it takes on both mind and body:

  1. Increase your awareness. Everyone responds to stress differently, often with both emotional and physical symptoms. So, whether you become short-tempered, you can’t catch your breath or you’re experiencing heart palpitations, it’s important to recognize how your body reacts to stress. “Over time, you can learn to catch yourself in your own behavior and take steps to get back on a healthier track,” Bacigal says.
  1. Stick to your healthy habits. During times of stress, it’s not uncommon to abandon healthy lifestyle habits. You may skip your workout, stay up past your usual bedtime and pick up takeout instead of preparing a healthy meal. The rub: Such tactics tend to backfire. You become sleep deprived, hungry, irritable, and since you’re not exercising, your body doesn’t have a way to release pent-up pressure.
  1. Establish a new routine. Any shift in an established pattern – good or bad – can prompt a stress response. “In general, people like things to be predictable so daily routines and structure can be comforting,” Bacigal says. The sooner you can create a new normal, the better you’ll feel. Newly retired? Consider meeting your former co-workers for your usual weekly golf game. Facing an empty nest? Take the same running route you did with the kids in tow.
  1. Monitor your self-talk. Learn to train your mind to stop negative self-talk (“I should have gone to the gym,” “I’ll never finish this report,” “I’m always late!”), and focus instead on what you have already achieved. “When you notice yourself using black-and-white words like ‘never,’ ‘always,’ and ‘should,’ recognize the statement you’re making is probably not true,” suggests Bacigal. “Follow those statements with a question: ‘why is this not true?’ Then shift your statement to be more positive by acknowledging what you did right.”
  1. Take a time out. Even though positive changes are exciting, make sure you take time to breathe. Listen to music, get out in nature, do a five-minute meditation. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as it’s a healthy practice that brings you back to a calm and happy place.

Stress gets a bad rap. The reality is, a comfortable amount of stress can actually be good for you. “Too little stress can cause you to become complacent and too much is obviously destructive, so the goal is to establish and maintain a comfortable amount of stress in your daily life,” says Bacigal, who relies on self-imposed deadlines to create a sense of urgency in his work.

Related Topic: 6 Things Your Doctor Wants You to Know About Stress

Not sure how much stress is too much? Ask your friends, loved ones and co-workers. “The people around you are often better at identifying when you’re stressed than you are,” says Bacigal. “They reflect back to you what they’re seeing.”

Most important, if you feel that your stress level has become unmanageable, don’t be afraid to ask for help. A trusted friend or health professional can help you identify your goals and chart a path toward achieving them.

To find a doctor or psychologist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936). You can also read more wellness advice in our FeelWell section, so subscribe to get all the latest tips.

Eric Bacigal is the Director of Employee Health, Safety & Wellness at Henry Ford Health System. He holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a postgraduate master’s certificate in human resources and development, and is an expert in cultural transformation, organizational change, conflict resolution, and employee engagement.

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