A Neurologist Explains How She Turns Stress & Anxiety Into Success

Integrative Neurologist By Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D.
Integrative Neurologist
Dr. Ruhoy is a board-certified neurologist practicing integrative pediatric and adult neurology in Seattle. She is the owner and founder of the Center for Healing Neurology, and received her M.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Image by W2 Photography / Stocksy

This may be TMI, but my life has not been easy. It has been a struggle since early on. Childhood was rough as my parents were divorced when I was 5 years old, and my mother raised my sister and me with very little money. My father was an alcoholic and a gambler and struggled with, shall we say, honesty. Somehow, I found my way to college and then to medical school, where I met my husband. I was finally on a path where I could feel settled that I was excited for. And then the brain tumor, surgery, and radiation. But enough about me. 

When I look back, however, I realize that I was propelled by my circumstances. These conditions weren't sustainable, so I had to change them—whether it was consciously or subconsciously. There is no question I suffered with anxiety at times during my journey, but it was this anxiety, from the stress of my circumstances, that made me act. It helped me get things done so that I could move from the place I was stuck. 

I would argue that almost all of us have experienced some level of anxiety or stress in our lifetimes. But how do we know if our anxiety is harming our health, or, dare we say, improving our lives?

Stress gets somewhat of a bad rap. But, in admittedly simplistic terms, there are two types of stress we can experience. There is the stress that makes you study harder for that test or add those extra details to a project at work or force a conversation with your life partner. This stress makes you ponder, analyze, ask questions, and can even clarify what you want and what your next steps are. I know many who truly believe if they do not feel anxious about a job, a test, a fear, then there will not be a desired outcome. 

Of course, the other type of stress is the type that can paralyze us and interfere in all we try to do in a given day. It can make it harder to work, exercise, sleep, eat (whether too much or too little), socialize, be intimate, play with our kids, and more. This type of unhealthy stress can involve fears we have about our health, our worth, irrational fears of a loved one dying, or a natural disaster. This stress can be detrimental to our health.

But the "good" type of stress offers the type of contentment, joy, and sense of accomplishment in getting something done well—in part, thanks to our stress regarding the task. It is these emotions that make life feel good and productive and bring gratitude and happiness. Indeed, this type of stress can drive us to make change in the world. Like when we feel anxious about policies or global change, we feel compelled to protest, start petitions, or run for office.

So, while we want to minimize the negative stress in our lives, through meditation, yoga, or exercise, we can still appreciate that some stress is unavoidable. We can even try to embrace this kind of stress as a natural human mechanism to achieve a desired goal, even if in that moment the ultimate goal is not clear. Trust your instinct to be anxious, as unconventional as this may sound. 

Even "good" stress should be managed, though. By taking steps to recognize our stressors and prepare for whatever it may be about, we can help alleviate some of those anxious feelings. "Good" or "bad," too much stress can drain us and negatively affect our lives and our health. We should not let stress control us, which it so often can. If you are suffering from severe anxiety, it is important to seek help from a qualified health care provider.

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