A new boss. A letter from the IRS. An ailing parent in need of your help. We all live in a stressful world. While we generally think of stress as bad and something we should eliminate from our lives, there actually is a way to think about stress differently and use it to our advantage.
When you change the way you think about stress, it can become your superpower…
Your Internal Warning System
Anxiety is basically an alarm system handed down by evolution that alerts us when there is a threat. Sometimes the threat is on the outside (like an angry driver cutting you off)…and sometimes that threat is on the inside (say, you’re torturing yourself about an upcoming presentation).
What if you changed your way of thinking about anxiety-provoking situations and learned to accept your feelings instead of simply running away from them?
In a Harvard University study, participants were placed in a high-stress situation. They had to give a speech in front of a hostile audience, all of whom sat with their arms crossed and brows furrowed. Before giving the speech, half of the participants were told that having a racing heart would improve their performance, while the other half were informed that they should try to ignore anything that made them nervous. The group that had been told to welcome their anxiety found the task to be less demanding and also had a more efficient cardiovascular response than the group who held a negative view of their nerves. Embracing stress had a clear upside and helped people to feel better.
Stress and anxiety are like fraternal twins—they have a lot in common and often travel together, but they’re not the same. Stress usually describes feeling emotional or mental strain or tension, while anxiety is a more dramatic sense of fear, dread or panic. It’s time to learn to take control of your stress and anxiety. Here’s how…
Use stress to solve problems. When we’re feeling worried, the question to ask is, What is making me fret? Treat your stress not as a problem in and of itself, but as a signal that something is amiss. Try to identify the problem at the root of the stress. Example: You’re scared about losing your job because you heard there might be layoffs at your company.
At the root of the stress: You feel completely out of control and filled with a fear of the unknown.
Solution: Take charge by getting your résumé together or talking to your boss to get more information about the rumor. By looking more carefully to identify the root of your stress, you often can proactively find the solution, too!
Let stress spur you to action. Although it may seem counterintuitive, avoidance and procrastination only increase your worries and make your stress worse.
Example: You get a bill and put off opening it because you are scared to see the damages. In the immediate term, this move feels good. You get a momentary sense of relief. But invariably, over the long term, your distress will build because you know you must pay the bill. There are two reasons that avoidance makes things worse. One is you get trapped repeating this action because the fear continues—so every month you’ll get relief by pushing your bill aside…but you never actually feel better, since the problem remains hanging over your head. You are not giving yourself the opportunity to competently manage the thing that you are afraid of—even if the bill is as high as you expected (or higher), you can come up with an actionable plan to address it.
View stress as a motivational tool. When you’re stressed, adrenaline surges and gets your body geared up for action. If you’re an elite athlete, these physiological changes help spur you to run faster or hit a home run. But even those of us who aren’t Olympians can use stress to improve our performance at work, sports or even playing charades.
Example: You are about to be interviewed for a job you really want. Those sweaty palms mean you’re bringing your A-game. Try telling yourself, That’s a sign that my body is preparing me to do a great job. Simply naming it calms you down.
If you believe in the power of your stress, it can boost your performance. In a study published in Personality Processes and Individual Differences, one group of participants learned about the many helpful benefits of stress, while the second group was taught that stress is always harmful. Several days later, the participants in the “stress-is-helpful” group reported an upswing in their mood and the quality of their work, while participants in the “stress-is-harmful” group did not.
See stress as proof of your resilience and strength. Psychologists have long recognized that stress has what we call an inoculating function, where people who are able to weather difficult life circumstances—such as overcoming a serious illness—often go on to later demonstrate higher-than-average resilience when faced with a new difficulty.
It’s like the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” With each stressful challenge that is overcome, you develop additional emotional strength.
Deploy stress to shine light in dark corners.Let’s say you’re frazzled because you’re caring for your children and aging parents at the same time. A lot of that stress actually comes in the form of daily hassles—too numerous to allow you much perspective on the problem.
But stress can work like a flashlight to illuminate the parts of your day that are the toughest. If you notice your tension is heightened around dinnertime, for example, pay attention to that clue. You could choose to order more takeout for dinner and relieve some of the pressure on yourself as you’re juggling other obligations. Remember: You can’t always vanquish major stressors, but you can try to reduce the number of everyday irritations.
Note: While stressful feelings are normal, they can cross the line and become a chronic condition. We know when that happens because the alarm stops making sense. Or it goes off all the time, even when there is no real threat. What should you do if your levels of stress are making you feel increasingly miserable or physically sick? If things feel like they are spiraling out of control, call and make an appointment with a mental health counselor. There’s a lot he/she can do to help you.