Stress is a worldwide epidemic.
According to the Global Organization for Stress, at least 60% of working adults in major global economies are stressed and that statistic is even higher in countries like Australia where it’s estimated that 91% of citizens are stressed out about some area of their lives and America where it’s estimated that at any given time, 75% of the population is experiencing high levels of stress.
Standard thinking says that this a terrible issue and people need to change their lifestyles to relax more.
But what if the feeling of stress itself isn’t the problem?
Research has found that the only people who experience the lasting, harmful effects of stress are those who believe that their stress is hurting them; people who don’t think stress is a bad thing are able to deal with their problems symptom-free. It turns out that stress can be hacked and with the right mindset and coping strategies, it can have a positive impact on your life.
Last month we chose The Upside of Stress by Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal to learn how to conquer the stress in our lives. Here are my favorite lessons from the book.
The Evolutionary Benefits of Stress
When handled properly, stress can be one your greatest assets for boosting productivity and performance in challenging situations. In the book, McGonigal explained these five benefits of stress, among others:
- It increases your energy levels. When you choose to harness it, rather than hate it, stress can be the source of energy and motivation you need to tackle your problems head on.
- It fuels flow states. If your stress doesn’t lead to panic, it helps you increase your focus on your triggers and efficiently develop beneficial solutions.
- It makes you more productive. One study in the book found that worldwide national stress levels are positively correlated with each country’s well-being as measured by GDP and other factors. In other words, stress inspires people to create more.
- It rewires your brain to learn from experiences. To avoid dealing with the same stressful situation again, our brains alter our perceptions and reactions toward our triggers. This prevents you from repeating mistakes.
- It makes you more resilient. If you choose to learn from stressful experiences and reflect on how you overcame them, it can heighten your threshold for stress so that small issues no longer worry you.
If you read this list and are wondering why you don’t always experience these benefits when you are stressed, it’s likely you are approaching stress the wrong way.
Your Perspective of Stress is Reality
Our beliefs directly affect our body’s physiological behaviors. Columbia research psychologist Alia Crum has conducted research that shows that our mindsets shape our physical reality. In one shocking study, her team told housekeepers that their work was exercise and gave them estimates of how many calories they burned per task. Within one month, they lost weight while the housekeepers who were told nothing remained in the same physical state. Simply believing that they were burning calories by working caused their bodies to burn more calories as if they were engaging in more rigorous exercise.
Your body reacts the same way to your beliefs about stress. Whether you think stress is harmful and something that should be avoided or that it’s a positive sign that you’re pushing through a difficult situation, determines what type of stress response you have.
McGonigal’s research found that people with negative perceptions of stress are more likely to experience fight-or-flight stress responses. This includes the commonly feared reactions to stress such as feeling panicked, an inability to focus, acting irrationally etc. People experience these symptoms because their bodies release large quantities of cortisol and other potentially damaging hormones.
On the flip side, people who embrace stress as a positive feeling, experience a challenge stress response. This is the type of stress response that gives you an intense desire to prove yourself, heightens your focus under pressure and gives you the energy you need to succeed in whatever situation you are in. People with positive beliefs about stress have these advantages because their bodies produce higher levels of DHEA–the performance-boosting stress hormone.
How to Hack Stress
Changing your perspective and reaction to stress can take time if you’re used to regarding it as a menace in your life. While you work on accepting that stress can be a positive feeling, McGonigal recommends a couple of coping mechanisms that can help fight stress and improve your life.
- Tend and Befriend: When we’re stressed out, a common reaction is to focus on ourselves which can make our problems seem more extreme than they are. A solution to this is to channel your stressful energy into tending to the people around you and befriending new people whom you can form mutually supportive relationships with. Doing this boosts your oxytocin levels (the bonding hormone) and can lower your stress levels by distracting you from yourself, making you feel good for helping other people and allowing you to feel more secure in your relationships.
- Set Bigger than Yourself Goals: A lot of stress can be eliminated from your life by switching your focus from achieving perfection in the moment to succeeding in ideological goals in the long-run. When your mindset is focused on goals that are bigger than yourself whether they’re family-related like raising your children to be kind, work-related such as reaching a career milestone that is far beyond your current capabilities or they’re related to a personal passion such as completing a triathlon–pursuing larger-than-life goals helps you forget about all of life’s little bumps as well as reduces stress for smaller issues.
Bottom line: You can’t control the difficult circumstances life throws at you, but by reframing your perspective on stress, you can drastically lower your stress levels and use your remaining stress to boost your performance and improve your relationships.
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