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.

But what if stress itself isn’t the problem?

Research finds 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. Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal has found ways to change the stress in our lives.

Watch her TED Talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend” TED Talk and read on for an eye-opening perspective on how stress affects us, and how to use it to our advantage:

#1: Your Perspective of Stress is Reality

Our beliefs directly affect our body’s physiological behaviors. Columbia research psychologist Alia Crum 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.

#2: Reframe Stress

When handled properly, stress can be one your greatest assets for boosting productivity and performance in challenging situations. McGonigal explains these five benefits of stress:

  • 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.

#3: Tend and Befriend

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 tending and befriending your stress. 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.

#4: Control Your Cortisol

When things don’t go as planned, our brain releases cortisol, the stress hormone. This causes our bodies to respond reactively. It makes us feel panicked and unsafe. With practice, we can train our brains to know that everything is going to be okay when things don’t go our way. This will in time, create new neural pathways to replace the old cortisol circuits.

  • Do the opposite of what you would normally do. If you need to make your bed and organize everything neatly before you leave the house in the morning, let it grow messier by the day instead. Cook dinner without a recipe or switch out random ingredients. Color outside the lines, complete your tasks out of order, throw all the rules you used to follow out the window. If you’re someone who likes order in your life, you’ll soon see that there’s beauty in the chaos.
  • Take down the clock. Keeping track of time is an easy way to take control. We allot ourselves specific time increments to complete tasks throughout the day and can become stressed out if things take longer than usual. It’s important to accept that we cannot control time. Pick a day to never look at a clock; just go about the day doing chores and performing routines as you see fit, but do not monitor the time. Choose parts of a day to spend with no plans. Stop thinking about time so much and you’ll see that it doesn’t matter as much as you think.
  • Put yourself first. Trying to people please is a stressful habit. Before you know it, you’ve soon put everyone around your first and have forgotten about yourself. I am giving you permission to put yourself first. Only help your friend or coworker when everything you need to do is finished first. Don’t overexert yourself if someone is asking too much of you. Make sure your mind and body are well-rested, well-fueled and recharged. Putting your needs before someone else’s will help keep those stress levels down.
  • Snap Out Of Your Funk. Are you feeling a little depressed? Maybe in a little funk? Are you exhausted or overwhelmed? Try my 5 ways to get out of a funk.

#5 Anti-Stress Body Language

The moment you begin to feel internal stress, it means your cortisol levels are pumping, working to bring you even further down into a cycle of anxiety. As soon as you feel yourself go into a stressful mental space, put your physical space into strong body language:

  • Roll your shoulders back and down your spine.
  • Aim your chest and forehead up towards the sun.
  • Place your feet firmly on the ground, shoulder width apart.
  • Relax your arms at your side.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that when athletes win a race, the more expansive their body language and when athletes lose a race, the more defeated their body language. Want to look like a winner? Roll your shoulders back, firmly plant your feet, open your chest and keep your head up. The more confident your body looks, the more confident you will be perceived as. This is called high body power—taking up space with your body.

Three Kinds of Power Poses You Can Try

  1. Pride. When we win a race, we throw our hands above our head and smile with happiness.
  2. Wonder Woman. Putting your hands on your hips and standing wide and firm is a great posture for confidence.
  3. Dancing. The more you can move your body and take up space, the more likely this will turn into muscle memory. Turn on your favorite song and rock out—it’s the best stress relief there is.

Next time you’re stressed try to use your body language to put you back in control and get the right hormones pumping. You will be amazed at how different you begin to feel.

Bottom Line: Being stressed can often make you feel weak or insignificant, so it’s important to stay positive and know that you are enough. If you can take a step back from whatever stressful situation you’re in and recharge, you will be able to switch back to a healthy, more beneficial mindset, which allows for more productivity, creativity and motivation to keep going.

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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