What If We Thought of Stress As Good?

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on Huffington Post

We have learned to fear stress. With good reason. It’s a killer, coiled at the root of nearly every diagnosis you can think of. When chronic stress goes unaddressed, it kicks off a complex series of physical, mental, and emotional effects that gradually erodes your immune response, digestion, mood, you name it. (More on the effects of stress on your body.)

But could part of our problem be that we have framed it that way? Could our fear of stress be making everything way worse? As the CEO of meQuilibrium, I know full well that no one source, problem, or issue is to blame when it comes to stress—that our response to stress has far more to do with our ability to cope than almost anything else.

Recently, our editor Terri Trespicio posted about her addiction to stress, and it spurred quite a bit of interest and press. She writes,

“I'm one of those people who likes stress. I like it a little too much. I think about downtime, but I rarely engage in it. I love to feel busy and active with lots of plates spinning. Oh, I'll complain about it, sure. But you try to take my stress away from me, and I'll fight you for it.”

She goes on to say that “stress by other names is also: excitement, motivation, energy, pressure. And just the right amount will get you to do amazing things. I wouldn't accomplish a thing without it.”

If our thoughts are the catalyst for emotion, and I know this to be true, then what if we changed the thoughts, not to avoid stress, but to embrace it? If we reframed stress as a good thing, would that make us feel any different?

In her fabulous TED talk (“How to make stress your friend”), psychologist Kelly McGonigal confesses that she’s spent years scaring people about the dangers of stress—which may not be as helpful as she thought.

She cites a statistic from some compelling new research: In one study, participants who experienced a lot of stress the previous year had a 43% increased risk of dying…but that was only true for those who believed stress was harmful for their health. In other words, perception of stress as bad had as much to do with their health as the stress itself.

“People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view it as harmful were no more likely to die,” she said. “They had the lowest risk of dying in the study.”

Whoa.

This underscores our approach to stress by beginning with the thoughts. And that means thoughts about stress. You can’t eliminate stress, as McGonigal says, but you can become better at it by retraining the way you think about it.

Imagine what that could mean for you—your energy, your sleep, your relationships with other people, if stress were your fuel, not your enemy.

“When you change your mind about stress,” says McGonigal, “you can change your response to stress.”

Start by reframing these common stress symptoms from negative to positive.

Heart pounding: Rather than reading this as a sign of panic, think of it as your body doing what it must to prepare you for whatever it is in front of you, such as a big presentation to your entire team. Understand that this kind of stress in another context (like an amusement park) would be considered fun or excitement.

The jitters. If you feel on edge and hyper aware, maybe even a little antsy, recognize that your body again has come to your rescue, heightening your senses so that you’re both aware and energized. Take advantage of that energy to accomplish the challenge ahead.

The urge to call your mom. The need to connect during times of stress, McGonigal says, is also natural—and critical to your survival. When stress hits, your body instinctually knows it needs the help of other people, and so the hormones it releases help spur you to do that. So do it—when you feel that need to be around or talk with coworkers, or reach out to someone you trust, don’t read it as “I am incapable” but “I am doing what I’m wired to do”—and by all means do it!

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