Bobby McFerrin's words might seems simplistic, but there is a lot of wisdom in them. Stress is not intrinsically bad... nor good. It's in the way that you use it. In my previous posts about exercise and gratitude I discussed the beneficial mechanism of how the body responds to acute (temporary) stress by developing a positive adaptation (getting stronger, faster, etc). In this context I'm referring to exercise as a stressor. There are other physical stressors our bodies can experience - extreme temperature, lack of food. As with exercise, these stressors can also bring about positive adaptations which I'll get into in future posts. But for now let's focus on what we typically mean when we use the word stress. Dude, I'm sooooo stressed out. THAT kind of stress.
We humans built this wonderful addition onto our brain - the prefrontal cortex. With it we gave ourselves savvy and the ability to plan... but we also gave ourselves the ability to worry over the future and ruminate about past disappointments. Ay caramba! It's important to understand that psychological stress is every bit as real as physical stress in terms of having a tangible effect on the body. Both forms of stress trigger chemical processes that result in a hormonal response. During a stressful event the hormone cortisol is released which amps up the sugar level in the bloodstream. It's a beautiful system. Something threatens our well-being, and our body gives us some extra juice to deal with it. It works nicely when the pattern is momentary stress followed by a long period of non-stress. It doesn't work so well when the stress is chronic - 24/7. While cortisol raises our energy it also lowers our immunity (that energy has to come from somewhere) and triggers the release of insulin which signals fat storage and makes us crave sugary treats.
When I take a walk I marvel at how well-adjusted the squirrel is. Looking for nuts, he is happy and calm. If a car or dog or... I startle him, he runs like hell up a tree. As soon as he's safe his stress levels down-regulate, and that's the end of it. He doesn't sit around thinking thoughts like, "Why did that guy scare me? Did I do something to deserve that? Is there something wrong with me?". All he knows is the crisis is over, and he returns to looking for nuts. A shining example for all of us to follow.
Of course, we have more going on in our lives than the squirrel. What are some practical things we can do to lower our stress levels? The first thing is to figure out what's causing your stress. Sometimes it's not obvious, and it's important to identify the enemy. Only then can you come up with a plan. Often the solution is paring back or doing less. Often we jam more and more stuff into our lives without conscious thought as to whether these things serve us. The "things" could be material possessions, activities, or even people. We have to be vigilant and constantly weed our gardens. You can check out a documentary about this idea of minimalism on Netflix. You don't have to go full-blown with the concept, but it's an idea worth exposing yourself to.
Meditation is a great tool for managing stress. When I was younger I thought mediation was this mystical concept of trying to divine the secrets of the universe. It's not. It's simply a mechanism for training yourself to be more present. As I mentioned above, stress typically results from thinking about either the past or the future. When you're present or "in the moment" you don't have that problem. I've tried different approaches to meditation. Recently I started using the app Headspace, and I've found it to be very practical. Taking walks (say hello to my little friends - squirrels) is great for modulating stress. I highly recommend yoga... at a yoga studio. I tried doing yoga at home to save myself embarrassment, but when I finally decided to man up and check in to the local yoga studio that made all the difference in the world. One last thing to mention is breath work. Taking a 5-minute timeout to do some simple box breathing does wonders for lowering stress.