Can we be friends with stress?
Although stress is a normal part of life, it’s also considered one of the leading causes of health issues and premature death. Heart pounding, sweating, shallow breathing, dizziness, nausea, sleep problems, high adrenaline, and cortisol are just some of the most common bodily reactions to stress.
Yet, these same reactions can be associated with another set of events, like excitement or readiness for action.
Most conversations about stress begin and end with prescriptions on how to be less stressed out, how to avoid stressors, or how to be least harmed by them.
But have you ever considered the possibility that you can make stress work for you?
What Is Stress?
Stress is the bodily reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. Stress is a normal part of life. You can experience stress from your environment, your body, and your thoughts.
Stress is a state of “mental tension” arising due to challenging or demanding circumstances. The most harmful aspect of this is blood vessel constriction associated with cardiac diseases.
People don’t like stress. We don’t like its sour smell under our armpits, we don’t like the extraneous alertness in our minds and bodies.
Our therapists and doctors tell us to avoid stress, practice mindfulness, and find creative vents. While this is all great, there is one psychologist who will tell you to embrace your stress and make the most out of it – Dr. Kelly McGonigal from Stanford University.
How to Befriend Your Stress
A study conducted at Wisconsin University with 30.000 participants discovered that people under a lot of stress who also believe that stress is harmful to them are at a 43% increased risk of death. The puzzling part of the conclusion is that, in contrast, those who didn’t believe that stress is harmful had no increased death risk.
Dr. McGonigal used this study as an example of how important our perception is.
She explains that bodily reaction to stress is actually a preparation for action. It makes us ready to take on any challenge.
Those individuals who perceived stress in this manner had no issues with vessel constriction, nor did they develop heart disease.
Along with cortisol and adrenaline, stress causes the secretion of another neural hormone: oxytocin. Unlike its counterparts, oxytocin is responsible for strengthening our relationships and connecting to other people. It becomes active every time we decide to tell someone that we’re going through something, or when we sense the need to help another human being.
This is why Dr. McGonigal insists that the best “cure” for stress, or better say, the best way to live with stress, is to connect with other people - help them or let them help us.
Feeling connected to other people gives us meaning, and meaning gives us perspective and a positive outlook on life.
How to Be Better at Stress
While we know it’s difficult to tell someone to simply “jump” from a negative-stress point of view to a positive-stress one, it’s much less difficult to do this gradually.
You can acquire certain skills, change your habits, and take control of how you feel about stress.
Is the glass half-full or half-empty for you?
Optimistic people tend to be healthier, live longer, and be overall more resilient. These are people who can’t wait to engage in new challenges, even if they don’t succeed. They see change as positive and risk as an opportunity.
Stress, therefore, is not a barrier to happiness, but a way to growth.
If the glass is half-empty, you can learn how to see it as half full.
The way we perceive things in life is not a given, it’s susceptible to change through learning. Just like subjects in the stress study framed stressful situations as positive or negative, we can all make a conscious decision to frame challenges and negative situations as opportunities that allow us to grow or change.
Core beliefs reflect our values, worldview, and life goals. People with stronger and positive core beliefs tend to be more resilient to stress. Believing that you can’t (change, adopt a new skill, get a promotion, etc) is a negative core belief that is also a part of a fixed mindset, which makes every challenge and risk susceptible to negative reactions to stress.
Positive core beliefs (altruism, believing that we’re capable of change and progress) help us create stronger bonds to our goals and thus be more resilient.
Another source of inspiration and positive thinking is learning that you’re not alone in any kind of adversity are role models. Besides the overly necessary feeling of connectedness to others, learning that someone else has come through the same or similar adversity can strengthen our own resilience.
Facing Our Fears
Turning away from problems and fears, or as Red Forman from That 70s Show says, “keeping those feelings bottled up” can only make things worse.
Avoidant behavior doesn’t lead to progress, but to stagnation. Confronting our fears and engaging in challenges in order to overcome them can help us become more resilient.
Higher levels of faith and spirituality are consistently associated with adaptive stress-coping mechanisms in a variety of study contexts and subjects.
While spirituality can stand for religious beliefs, what’s even more important is that it’s related to our perception of the world, the universe, other living creatures, etc. Strong spiritual beliefs are related to an optimistic life orientation, a stronger perception of being connected to others, and lower anxiety levels.
As Dr. McGonigal emphasized in her TEDTalk, seeking and providing support comes as a result of enhanced oxytocin levels.
Although one common route of coping with stress is to hide our vulnerability and turn only to ourselves, the other route is also possible: reaching out to other people, connecting with them, and seeking, but also providing support.
We mention the importance of physical activity often in our articles because we can not stress enough how beneficial it is. Healthy body–healthy mind, and, although it’s more complex than that, the bottom line is that exercise makes us physically and mentally stronger, helps us vent, and improves our mood.
All this is necessary for building resilience.
Inoculate Against Stress
Never stop educating and challenging your mind.
Ignorance can be a powerful source of negative reactions to stress, while knowledge, integrity, and mental and physical endurance can help us become more resilient individuals.
Reading, thinking, and educating ourselves in the spheres of emotional intelligence, psychology, social issues, politics, etc broadens our horizons and puts things in perspective. The more you know, the less frustrated you get, because knowledge gives us power.
Find Meaning and Purpose
Clear goals and having a purpose in life can help you find your focus and give you reasons to find strength even when it seems impossible.
Meaning boosts our emotional strength and organizes our cognitive and emotional life. If you know where you’re headed in life and why you’re going in a certain direction, nothing can bring your resilience down.
Can we become better at stress? Can stress be our friend? Apparently, the answer is positive.
Never underestimate the power of your mind. It’s not just wise gurus who tell you that your mind shapes the way you live. Science too confirms that the way we perceive the world and the events in it shape the way we react to it, even physically.
It’s time to make a positive change and befriend your stress.