You have a missed call from your boss and your heart rate goes up. You’re trying to get home for an important event and the highway is closed down, leaving you driving through the hinterland as everything runs amok and confusion is rampant. Your speaker cancels at the last minute and you start sweating as you try and figure out plan B. Your spouse forgets the dinner plans and you react by texting, “Whatever.” Is this your reaction? Better yet do you go around saying, “I’m so stressed!” Turns out, that’s a bad idea.
Kelly McGonigal wrote a break-through book called The Upside of Stress. McGonigal herself had a lot of preconceived notions about stress. We all do. Stress is to be avoided or numbed out (say one more cigarette or beer at the end of the day). As she posits in her book, “Mindset 1 is: Stress Is Harmful. Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality. Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity. Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth. The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided.” This is definitely the way I’ve viewed stress and I bet you do to. Dampen down the feelings and try to escape from it.
What she found with the opposite mind set was, “Mindset 2 is: Stress Is Enhancing. Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity. Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality. Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth. The effects of stress are positive and should be utilized.” Skeptical? So was I. How can you embrace stress? How can you see it as your friend?
Check out these surprising healthy responses:
1. Rise to the Challenge. As McGonigal suggests, if you can view the stress as a challenge instead, it’s a much more positive experience. So your heart rate is up? Good, that means you’re excited, you’re focused and ready to act. It’s almost like letting the dam break instead of trying to hold back all the pressure. Holding back the pressure is what is actually harming you. As concluded in Health Psychology, “High amounts of stress and the perception that stress impacts health are each associated with poor health and mental health. Individuals who perceived that stress affects their health and reported a large amount of stress had an increased risk of premature death.” So dampening down the stress and viewing it as bad for your health is actually bad for you. Embracing it as a challenge can increase your life span. Amazing what a little mindset can do.
2. Connect with Others. This was a huge insight for me. I never realized that when I am under stress I want to connect with others but this is the “Tend and Befriend” response. I always viewed stress as “Fight or Flight or Freeze,” I didn’t consciously realize from a biological standpoint, a mama bear is going to automatically protect her baby cubs. I can look back now and realize that, when stressed, I tend to reach out to others by picking up the phone or looking for an embrace from my spouse. The connection response is built into your body.
Another study cited was on volunteerism from The American Journal of Public Health. This study looked at the mortality rates of those who volunteered (re: connected with others) versus those who didn’t. The conclusion was “helping others predicted reduced mortality specifically by buffering the association between stress and mortality.” Connection including volunteering helped buffer the stress. It helps your social cognition, lessens fear and bolsters your courage.
3. Learn and Grow. My tendency was to try and shut out stress and certainly not try to “grow” from it. What could be gained by reliving stress? Apparently it’s good for you if you can put it in a positive light. So when you can reappraise the situation “Hmmm. I wonder why I feel my adrenaline shoot up when I go on stage. How can I harness this energy to perform better? What am I learning about my body’s response?” This is actually rewiring your brain to respond differently and more positively in the future. As cited in the American Psychology Association, “Given that adaptive responses to acute stress improve our ability to cope with future stressors, health education programs might seek to educate students about the functionality of stress in an effort to break the link between physiological arousal and negative appraisals.” Seems completely counter intuitive, but you need to view stress as a positive. This is your body responding and let’s ride the wave while we learn from it. Be sure to reappraise the stress in a positive light.
So once I finished the book, I started realizing how often I said “I’m totally stressed” or “I’m so stressed out.” Actually my husband is doing a good job of catching me say it as well. Find someone to hold you accountable for your mindset. Maybe set up a jar and put a dollar in every time you say you are stressed. Now I’m trying to say, “I’m really excited and alert” or “This is going to be an interesting challenge.” This is really tough but if it could extend my life and yours. Isn’t it worth it?