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Stress on a Bell Curve

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

Good Stress, Peak Stress, & Distress

Stress is a topic we are all too familiar with. Society has instilled the thought that if we aren’t continuously moving and staying busy, then we aren’t being productive in our lives. Of course, this isn't necessarily the case. Everyone has a different level of tolerance for what they can handle, and there is no base level for how overloaded a person has to be. Many of us may find it hard to avoid the feeling of "being stressed out", but too much stress on the mind and body can have negative effects. It is important to learn when your level of stress is changing from a positive form of stress to a negative form.

Let’s unpack the different levels of stress.

First, there is "good stress". This is a positive form or feeling of stress. Let’s say you have a task that needs to be completed within a certain amount of time. You put this task on your to-do list to make sure that you don't miss the deadline and make a plan for yourself. Now, this task may be something small with little importance or it may be one that could have a large effect on your future. You could easily forget about the task and never come back to it but good stress is what motivates you to get it done.

Then, there is 'peak stress". This is the tip of the tier. If you think of your stress tolerance as a normal bell curve, this would be at the very top- right before things start going downhill. At peak stress, you may have one or even quite a few stressors you are dealing with. You may have a feeling that your plate is full, but you are not yet overwhelmed. We can use the analogy of a basket of apples. You have stacked all of the apples you can into your basket to carry home. As you walk, no apples roll out of your basket and it isn't too heavy. Yet, if you were to add even one more apple, all of your apples may topple out and you could have a mess on your hands. With peak stress, you may feel fruitful and productive. However, one more added situation could send you into what we call “distress”.

Lastly, there is "distress". Think back. Have you ever had so many things going on in your world to where you felt like you couldn’t get out of bed some days? You may have felt yourself getting sick or even your mood shifting in ways it normally wouldn’t. You were more than likely in a state of distress. On the bell curve, this would be the descent past peak stress. You've hit your limit with how much you can manage for the time and are becoming overwhelmed. In many cases, mental health is often overlooked when compared to physical health. In distress, however, it can be hard to ignore. This is why it is important to pay attention to both your mental state and stress level so that you don't stretch yourself too thin and fall into a state of distress.

If you do find yourself on the distressed end of the curve and are needing help to get back on track don't hesitate to contact any of our skilled therapists, other support systems, or local resources. It takes some time and practice to learn your manageable stress levels or to bounce back from an unforeseen event, and Houston Therapy is happy to help along your journey.

(Psychological distress; a set of painful mental and physical symptoms that are associated with normal fluctuations of mood in most people. -APA Dictionary of Psychology

Written by Brianna Dennis-McCrory

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