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How to Find Your Stress Sweet Spot

By JOHN BERARDI

Stress can be good in small doses. But chronic stress? That's a different story. No doubt about it, stress sucks. Especially chronic stress -- the kind that sticks around and never lets up. Chronic stress can harm your immune system, reproductive health, digestion, metabolism and more.

On a mental level, chronic stress can negatively rewire your brain, increasing your risk for anxiety and depression. But not all stress is bad. A certain amount of "good stress" helps you learn, grow and get stronger. It helps keep you focused, energetic and alert. For example, it increases your concentration when writing an exam or delivering a presentation at work and gives you a burst of speed and strength in emergency situations.

[Read More: Just Say No to That Detox Diet]

Beyond a certain point, though, stress stops helping and starts damaging your health, your happiness and your overall quality of life. Luckily, when it comes to managing stress levels you may have more power than you think. You can employ simple strategies to keep stress in check. Here's how to find your stress "sweet spot."

Good stress versus bad stress.
Improving your stress level starts with understanding the difference between good stress and bad stress. How can you tell the difference between the two? Here are the basic differentiating factors:

Good stress
* is short-lived
* is infrequent
* can be part of a positive life experience
* inspires you to action
* helps build you up and leaves you better than you were before

Bad stress
* lasts a long time
* is chronic
* is negative, depressing and demoralizing
* de-motivates and paralyzes you
* breaks you down and leaves you worse off than you were before

Unsure of whether something in your life is causing you good stress or bad stress? Assess how long it takes you to recover: You should bounce back relatively quickly from good stress. Maybe you need a nap or a yoga class or a day off, but soon you'll be back to your regular self.

Bad stress, on the other hand, can linger long after the actual stressor is gone. You may find yourself wondering why you can't just bounce back, and you may notice physical side effects too -- like tiredness, aches and pains or even illness.

Find your stress balance.
Ever heard the expression "the straw that broke the camel's back?" Well, there's some science behind that. It's called the "allostatic load."

The allostatic load is all the "straw" you're carrying. It's the total of all the physical, mental and emotional stress in your life. The larger the load, the harder it is to recover. You can visualize the allostatic load like this:

Stress performance

To get a sense of your own allostatic load, try this: Write down all the things, big and small, that are stressing you out. After reviewing your list, how do you feel? Are you a little too close to the "crash zone" for comfort? If so, don't worry.

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To reduce stress in your life, you don't have to quit your job or head for the hills and join a monastery. You just need to find your sweet spot. Here are some things you can do, eat and think to achieve a healthier overall balance of stress in your life.

Things you can do: Strategies to help you minimize negative stress.

Practice meditation.
Meditation is one of the best stress relievers. Research shows regular meditation can deliver plenty of restorative benefits, such as lowered blood pressure, reduced inflammation, improved immune-system function, better sleep and greater mental clarity.

To meditate, start by sitting in a quiet place and drawing your attention to your breath or your body for five or 10 minutes. Start small. As you become more comfortable with the practice you can extend the length of your sessions.

Get some gentle exercise.
Regular exercise can give you energy, allow you to blow off steam and boost your stress tolerance. But it can also contribute to stress. So if you're training hard during a stressful time (or overtraining), you could be making things worse.

Instead, do exercises that leave you feeling refreshed and invigorated afterward, not drained and exhausted. Try walking, hiking, yoga, gentle swimming or casual cycling.

Build your recovery toolbox.
Just as we all experience stress differently, we all recover from stress differently too. Develop a go-to list of relaxing activities that help you recover after stressful experiences. If you don't know what relaxes you, try some different activities and see what works best.

Some great stress-busting activities include:

* being in nature
* getting moderate sunshine
* listening to relaxing music
* massage or spa treatments
* snuggling a loved one or pet
* having sex (seriously)
* fun, noncompetitive play

Things you can eat: Nutritional practices to help you cope.

Sip green tea.
Regularly drinking green tea has been shown to lower psychological stress. This is attributed to an amino acid in green tea that is a proven stress reducer and calming agent. It inhibits the stress hormone cortisol, lowers your blood pressure and heart rate and chills out your stressed nervous system -- in just 30 to 40 minutes after consumption.

Stock up on immune-boosting foods, especially omega-3 fats.
A healthy immune system will help you avoid getting sick and can carry you through a stressful time. In particular, eat plenty of fish, pasture-raised animals, flaxseed and chia seeds and take your fish-oil supplements.

Skip the comfort food.
Your junk-food favorites can look very tempting when you're stressed to the max, but the burgers and ice cream will probably only make you feel worse. In the long run, a diet high in processed foods can make you more prone to depression. If you choose to indulge in comfort foods or alcohol, do so mindfully and in moderation. And remember, extreme diets that masquerade as "detoxes" or "cleanses" can be stressful too.

Things you can think: A mindset to increase your stress resilience.

Change your stress story.
If you keep telling everybody how busy and crazy your life is, you're only reinforcing the stress. On the other hand, a positive attitude can actually lower stress levels. Start telling yourself you have what it takes to manage the challenges in your life and you'll start to feel more confident and capable.

Be mindful of your attitude.
Your view of stress can determine your ability to respond to it. Practice viewing a stressful event as a challenge or an interesting puzzle to solve. Be willing to have a plan B (or C or D), and stay open, flexible and creative.

Know your limits.
Know how much stress you can handle. While you can increase your stress tolerance, it's important to know your own comfort level and set boundaries. Be reasonable about your individual capabilities and expectations. Practice self-compassion when you feel stressed.

Every person experiences stress differently. It's all about finding the strategies that work for you and creating a healthy balance in your life. And that is the stress sweet spot.

--John

Want some help finding the best eating and stress-management strategies for you? Download this free guide: Paleo, vegan, intermittent fasting…Here's how to choose the best diet and lifestyle for you.

Readers -- Do you feel stressed all the time? Do you know when "good" stress turns to "bad" stress for you? What do you do to relieve stress? Did you find this article helpful? Leave a comment below and let us know.

John Berardi, Ph.D., is a founder of Precision Nutrition, the world's largest online nutrition coaching company. He also sits on the health and performance advisory boards of Nike, Titleist and Equinox. 

In the last five years, Dr. Berardi and his team have personally helped more than 30,000 people improve their eating, lose weight and boost their health through their renowned Precision Nutrition Coaching program.


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