- Heart disease
- Depression and anxiety
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Accelerated aging
- Premature death
We have been talking about burnout in the last couple of episodes. In Episode 93: On The Edge Of Burnout: The Indicators And How To Stop It, I shared Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter’s idea that the symptoms of burnout exist on a continuum. They start out as stress but over time, and with repetition, the stress leads to burnout. Most importantly, her definition of burnout is “a state of chronic stress.” So what could I possibly have to say about stress that could move it from foe into the friend category?
Change Your Perspective
Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to convince you, but Kelly McGonigal is. Kelly wrote a book called The Upside of Stress. Surprisingly, research indicates that the way in which stress affects you is due primarily in how you think about it. Ouch! I’m not a fan of personal accountability when it comes to one of my favorite excuses!
People who believe stress is enhancing, are less depressed and more satisfied with their lives than people who view it as harmful. They have more energy and fewer health issues. Their approach facilitates the ability to be more productive at work experiencing increased happiness at the same time. They also have greater confidence in their ability to cope with challenges, and even find meaning in difficult circumstances – all good reasons to examine whether a change is needed in our perspective!
What Is Stress
So what is stress? A common definition is that it’s a physical, mental, or emotional factor which causes bodily or mental tension. It can result from external factors – think of your various environments such as work, home, or community. The weather, social settings, and your boss can trigger this feeling. Less obvious forms result from our internal condition. An illness or even our psychological state can produce stress. A serious injury requiring surgery or recovery could be another example.
Stress is your body’s way of responding to the demands placed on it. When you feel stressed your body reacts by releasing chemicals into the blood. These chemicals are cortisol and adrenaline. As a result, these chemicals are actually meant to help you – your body is pretty amazing. You likely think that stress is toxic and should be avoided at all costs, but that’s probably just adding to the pressure.
What We Know About Stress
You might not recognize Kelly McGonigal, but she’s a pretty famous psychologist who has spent a lot of time in the lecterns at Stanford as well as TED talk stages. She tells us that most of our knowledge of stress comes from a significant amount of testing done by Hans Selye on lab rats. His results have created the majority of the perceptions that we carry about it. Because of this, he was actually known as the Grandfather of Stress and even received Nobel Prize nominations ten different times for his work. Well, there are certainly some people that you know who behave like rats, but the tests that were performed don’t look much like your life or mine.
This is what a typical day looked like for one of Selye’s lab rats. You’d start off with unpredictable, uncontrollable shocks. Then you’d get thrown in a bucket of water and forced to swim until you started to drown. Then, finally, you’d get put into an overcrowded cage with other rats where you would fight over inadequate supply of food. McGonigal rightly points out, that this isn’t stress – this is the Hunger Games for rodents!
What We Believe About Stress
So this research and published findings along with a big dose of mythology have produced the generally negative mindset that most Americans have taken on with regard to stress. This translates into beliefs that stress will:
- deplete health and vitality
- debilitate performance and productivity
- inhibit learning and growth
- produce negative results and should be avoided
When you take the perspective that stress must be avoided, Kelly says that you will wind up defaulting to methods like these to cope with it:
- distracting yourself from the cause of the stress instead of dealing with it
- focusing on getting rid of feelings of stress instead of taking steps to address its source
- turning to alcohol or other substances or addiction to escape it
- withdrawing energy and attention from whatever relationship, role or goal is causing the stress
Choose Your Response And See These Benefits
But as you already know, you have a choice about your response to stress or stressful situations. Holocaust survivor, Viktr Frankl, says “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
When you choose to view it as enhancing your life, then experiencing stress will:
- enhance performance and productivity
- improve health and vitality
- facilitate learning and growth
- viewed as positive and to be utilized
Therefore, it feels as if you are facing the challenge of stress head-on, as something that can be overcome. Rather than coping, Kelly says using stress to your advantage results in:
- accepting that a stressful event has occurred and is real
- planning a strategy for dealing with the source of stress
- seeking information, help, or advice
- taking steps to overcome, remove, or change the source of stress
- making the best of the situation by viewing it in a more positive way or by using it as an opportunity to grow
Just taking this perspective for a few moments actually causes me to feel better about the challenging circumstances that I face. I hope it’s having that effect for you as well. It’s going to take some practice to think this way and develop a habit or response that aligns with how we want to behave. The stress isn’t gone. We didn’t ignore it or pretend it wasn’t there. I’m acknowledging it and taking away it’s power by deciding to address it.
I’ve said many times that you will get the life you always imagined. It’s true here as well. If you expect stress to produce the negative effects we mentioned, I can assure you that it will. If you expect stress to produce a positive effect, I can assure you that it will. Kelly shares how people who have a positive view of aging actually add an average of eight years to their life and have an 80% lower risk of a heart attack. Your mindset not only helps you in the moment, but also influences you to make better decisions in the future, leading to better outcomes. She says it’s as though mindset matters twice.
Here are some alternative perspectives of stress that you must consider if you are going to change how you think about stress.
Stress Helps You Engage
Stress will actually help you to perform. What? I definitely didn’t see that one coming, did you?! It focuses your attention, heightens your senses, increases your motivation, and mobilizes energy. Surprisingly, this is true even when the stress doesn’t feel helpful, which is the case when people experience anxiety. Listen to how Kelly describes this:
When you start to feel your heart pounding or your breath quickening, remember that this is your body’s way of trying to give you more energy. When you start to feel tension in your body, remember that the stress response gives you access to your strength. Are your palms sweaty? Good, that means you are close to something that you want. Do you have butterflies in your stomach? Embrace them – it’s your guts way of saying that this is something that matters.
So what does the traditional avoidance advice look like? Well, it probably sounds something like “Calm down,” right?! If you do that, you risk missing out on the energy and strength she just mentioned. So instead of taking a deep breath and trying to calm down, her advice is to take a deep breath and sense the energy that’s available to you. And like everything, it’s not just knowledge, but action. You have to use that energy to your advantage.
View Stress As A Tool To Connect
Kelly describes this as “tend-and-befriend” – a response that enables us to protect our children rather than get paralyzed with fear. Here’s the sciencey explanation of what’s happening in three systems in your brain.
- It activates the social caregiving system, which is regulated by oxytocin. It produces empathy, connection and trust.
- Activates the reward system, which releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine results in feeling more optimistic about your ability to do something meaningful, and primes your brain for physical action, ensuring that you don’t freeze under pressure.
- It activates the attunement system, which releases the neurotransmitter serotonin. When this happens, your perception, intuition and self-control are all enhanced to ensure that the actions you take have the biggest positive impact.
McGonigal says the “tend-and-befriend” response makes you social, brave and smart. Sounds quite a bit different than trying to avoid stress, right?! As you are listening, I want this to restore hope that you CAN deal with stress.
Therefore, putting this to practice means looking for opportunities to do something for somebody else that goes beyond your regular responsibilities. But Kelly warns that your brain is going to tell you that you don’t have the time or energy to do it…and that’s why you should. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Most importantly, even a small action on someone else’s behalf will produce the desired result.
Use Stress To Grow
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…well, that might not be the best analogy here, but research confirms good can come from harsh or traumatic circumstances. So, think of these benefits that result from enduring great difficulty or trauma:
- a sense of personal strength
- increased appreciation for life
- spiritual growth
- enhanced social connections and relationships with others
- identifying new possibilities and life directions.
It’s not because the bad thing that happened is really good; no, it was bad. REALLY BAD! Instead, the good comes from your approach to dealing with it. Besides, you have to respond either way, so you might as well have positive expectations while walking through it! Here’s the cool part: you’ve been here before and you aren’t recognizing it. When you stop and reflect on your incredible fortitude and perseverance – everything you had to do to make it this far – it should inspire you to believe that you will make it through this too!
I’ll leave you with this recommendation for combatting stress from R. Morgan Griffin:
- breathe deeply
- focus on the moment
- reframe the situation
- keep your problems in perspective
You are an overcomer – so don’t let circumstances weigh you down! Every path worth walking in this life will present you with challenges. So, don’t run from those challenges – embrace them. You’ve got more tools and knowledge than ever before so it increases your ability to deal with larger and larger challenges. The choice is yours and that’s the beauty: you get to choose your response.
Resources Mentioned In This Episode:
10 Fixable Stress-Related Health Problems by R. Morgan Griffin
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