Do have trouble sleeping, with your mind racing every night? Is your cortisol level through the roof? Do you just feel like you’re completely overwhelmed by stress?
The most common solution is to develop coping skills. Case in point: We have recommended a number of science-backed stress management habits, including healthy eating, laughter, intense workouts, and meditation.
As helpful as these activities can be, emerging research suggests another approach: Just embrace your stress!
Something as simple as shifting your perspective to view stress as a positive can safeguard your health and improve productivity. Instead of a daily, life-draining experience, you can become one of those people who thrive in the face of stress!
It makes sense when you think about presidents and top executives: Although these leaders may take time to meditate, exercise, or connect with others socially, a low stress lifestyle isn’t a possibility. These people are putting out fires from dawn till dusk and they often thrive on only a few hours of sleep a night. They also tend to live healthier lives, surpassing the average lifespan by a number of years.
Acute Vs. Chronic Stress
When we are under extreme stress, we experience a fight-or-flight response leading to an increase in heart rate and the release of a surge of hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. Meanwhile, your blood pressure rises and your liver dumps sugar and fat into your blood stream to fuel activity. The immune system is activated and physiological processes necessary to sustain life are enhanced, whereas those that are geared toward growth or reproduction are downregulated.
When stress is a one time, limited experience, as it was more likely to be for our ancestors, this physical response is life saving. For instance, a recent finding is that when people experience the fight or flight reaction for a very brief period of time, it can speed wound healing and fight infection.
However, when it becomes chronic and we experience it over and over and over again throughout the day (traffic, job worries, a health scare, a fight with a friend, an infuriating comment online, childcare problems, etc.), it will weigh you down and harm your health.
On the other hand, if you view stress as a positive, knowing that you have the capacity to cope with challenging experiences, it makes it more likely that you’ll achieve an optimal level of arousal when under stress and be able to meet goals and demands.
The Challenge Response
The “challenge” stress response is chemically similar to fight or flight but you’re more focused than fearful. You recognize that you are bigger than your stressor and have the skills to handle it. That psychological shift alters your biological response, particularly your levels of stress hormones.
You release less cortisol, which can contribute to that ‘burned out feeling” when it is excessively elevated. You also release more DHEA, a steroid that acts as a precursor for testosterone and other hormones. DHEA helps the brain respond to stress and has been linked to a reduction in anxiety and depression.
The million-dollar question is how to coax your body to view stress as a “challenge” rather than a threat.
Step #1 is to rely on past experiences. You know from repeated experiences that when a big work project comes up, you’ll stress over it, but in the end you’ll get it done. Frequent exposure to difficulty builds resilience, which serves as a sort of stress inoculation. Start learning from these experiences, shifting your mindset to have confidence in your ability to handle whatever is thrown at you. You’ve done it before and you’ll do it again.
Step #2 is to view your physical reactions of stress as positive. Instead of working against you, think of your pounding heart or your sweaty palms as indicators that you can rise to the occasion
Tell yourself: “My pounding heart shows me I’m excited and ready to perform at my best.”
Or, “the butterflies in my stomach will give me the boost in energy and focus to get an A+ on this test.”
On a side note, studies show that when people view their stress response as positive, their blood vessels stayed dilated, which is a much healthier effect than the narrowing of the arteries that occurs when fight or flight is activated.
Step #3 is to focus on the task, rather than the emotion. Recognize worry for what it is: Worry is a feeling that reflects how important an activity is. The heightened physical reaction in your body (increased heart rate, tension in the body) is an indicator of how much you care about the task. Once you understand worry is an indicator rather than a symptom of dysfunction, you can react to it more rationally.
Step #4 is to adjust your mindset. Stress is an indicator that you care about something, rather than a cause for panic. Shifting your mindset to the positive is key because when you’re in fight or flight mode, your ability to think is limited. If you are positive but concerned, you have the opportunity to shift into a “flow” state that allows your brain to explore possibilities. View the stress as a challenge rather than a threat. The mental shift can be activating instead of paralyzing.
Step #5 is to focus on what you can control. The problem with trying to reduce stress is that it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to do. Even if you’re able to avoid stress temporarily through procrastination or avoidance, it will only come back to bite you later on. Shawn Achor, an expert in positive psychology, recommends writing out a list of stresses and putting them into two circles or “islands.” One island is things you can control. The other is for things you can’t. Ignore the second island and focus on concrete actions to take in the first.
Step #6 is to reach out to others during times of stress. Most people know of oxytocin as the “love” hormone because it’s released in response to physical touch and attraction. But oxytocin is also released in response to stress. In fact, researchers believe that the increase in oxytocin is a built in mechanism to help you be resilient to stress—that is, turn to others who can support you when the going gets rough.
It works the other way too: Research shows that when we do a good deed for others, whether it’s to offer comfort or listen to others vent, we experience an increase in oxytocin that relieves our experience of stress as well.