How often have you felt stressed recently? You know, those situations where you feel your stomach twisting into knots, your heart racing and your hands sweating. Let’s be honest for many of these moments seem like part of everyday life. And with media headlines like “Stress Kills” or “Science Proves Stress Makes You Depressed”, it’s easy to understand why you might have become anxious about finding ways to eliminate stress from your life.
But what if it was your fears about stress, rather than stress itself, that was the problem?
Dr. Kelly McGonigal from Stanford University suggests what when you try to avoid stress anything in your life that causes stress starts to look like a problem. You experience stress at work and think there’s a problem with your job. You experience stress as a parent, and think there’s something wrong with your parenting skills (or your kids). You experience stress when you try to make changes in your life, and you think there’s something wrong with your goals.
In her book, Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good For You and How To Get Good At It, Kelly explains that when you believe that stress is harmful and something to avoid you generally feel that what’s unfolding is utterly meaningless and against your will. This triggers a ‘fight or flight’ response causing you to isolate and protect yourself from others and leaving you feeling afraid, full of self-doubt, and often incredibly lonely.
But this isn’t the only stress response response available to you.
By changing the way you think about stress – embracing it as an opportunity for meaningful growth, to stand up for what is important to you and to connect with others – Kelly explains that stress can leave you feeling courageous, confident and connected.
How can this possibly work?
When you believe stress should be avoided, each time something you care about is at stake, stress hormones like cortisol trigger your fight-or-flight response creating a rush of fearful energy and motivation that primes you for self-defense and makes you vigilant for signs that things are going poorly. This can create a vicious cycle where your heightened attention to what’s going wrong fills you with self-doubt and leaves you with higher levels of cortisol, which can be associated with impaired immune function and depression.
But what if your pounding heart or quickened breath was your body’s way of giving you more energy and strength? What if the butterflies in your stomach were a sign that you’re close to something you want? What if your body was providing you with all the resources you need to rise to a challenge?
Kelly explains that the energy you get from stress fires up your brain and gives you the resources and concentration to focus more quickly and attentively on your physical surroundings. You’re able to identify what is really important and other less important priorities drop away. And the motivation boost from a chemical cocktail of endorphins, adrenaline, testosterone, and dopamine, helps you protect the people and communities you care about and importantly gives you the courage and confidence to do so. Some scientists call this the “excite and delight” side of stress.
As a result, Kelly shares that studies have found during business negotiations, a challenge response to stress can lead to more effective sharing and withholding of information, as well as smarter decision-making. For example, surgeons show better focus and fine motor skills. And when faced with engine failure during a flight simulation, pilots make better use of plane data and have safer landings.
Finally, Kelly points out that your body’s stress response doesn’t just give you energy, it also releases oxytocin. This makes your brain better at noticing and empathizing with others, it encourages you to reach out and connect with people who can support you, and makes you more trusting and caring for others.
You see it turns out that your instinct for social connection is every bit as strong as your instinct for survival, so while it’s true that a fight-or-flight stress response may make you more aggressive or withdrawn, it’s also true that a tend-and-befriend stress response can make you more caring. And when we believe that stress is an opportunity to connect with others, rather than to escape life, it fuels us with hope and seems to protect us against the harmful effects of stress on our physical health.
Now let me be clear, Kelly is not suggesting that the most helpful beliefs are a naive insistence that everything bad will turn into something good. Rather, it’s the ability to notice the opportunities for learning and growth as you try to cope with things that are difficult and challenging. For example, people who report both negative and positive changes after a terrorist attack have been found to be more likely to sustain post-traumatic growth compared to those who initially report only positive changes. Kelly encourages us to think of it as an exercise in being able to hold opposite perspectives at once – the ‘and’ rather than the ‘either/or’ – instead of an exercise in positive thinking.
What Kelly is advocating is developing a balanced approach to stress: acknowledging your stress but fearing it less; feeling your distress and deciding to choose the upside of what it means; discovering how the stress connects you to what you care about; trusting yourself to handle the situation; and using it as a resource to reach out, connect and engage with life.
So what can you do to harness stress to work with you and not against you?
The good news is that because stress is a biological state designed to help you learn from experience, your stress response is extremely receptive to the effects of deliberate practice. Kelly suggests trying these three simple steps to improve your stress response:
- Practice mindset mindfulness – becoming aware of your current stress mindset is the first step in changing your stress mindset. To get to know your stress mindset, start to notice how you think and talk about stress. Because a mindset is like a filter that colors every experience, you’ll probably discover that you have a standard way of thinking and talking about stress. Notice what you think and say when you experience stress. And how do you respond when others around you talk about their stress?
- Acknowledge you stress – when you experience stress notice it, and recognize it as a response to something you care about. What is at stake here, and why does it matter to you? Which part of the stress response do you need most right now? Can you connect to the positive motivation behind the stress? Do you need to fight, escape, engage, connect, find meaning, or grow? Even if it feels like your stress response is pushing you in one direction, focusing on how you want to respond can shift your biology to support you. What response would best reflect you values and your goals?
- Focus on your resources – when you experience a stressful situation reflect on when you have previously overcome similar challenges. What personal strengths did you use? What did you learn?Who did you reach out to for support? How can you use these resources to help you deal effectively with your current situation?
What can you do to re-think and respond in new ways to stressful experiences in your life?