Stress is ....
How did you finish the above sentence?
Is it anything like the sentence below?
"Stress is the root of all diseases"
"Stress should be avoided at all costs"
"Stress causes cancer"
We hear a lot of very negative messages about stress, mostly in the media and from people around us.
Having heard these narratives since childhood, we consciously or subconsciously come to view all "stress" as an absolute evil that must be eliminated at all costs, something we don't want to experience. HOWEVER,
Research from Yale and Stanford universities has shown that the way we think about stress has a greater impact on our health than the actual stress itself.
Many people, at the slightest hint of difficulty or discomfort, think, "I'm stressed, I'm struggling," and try to shake off the stress.
I used to be one of those people.
Something happens that doesn't go according to my expectations
Someone says something unpleasant to me
Someone gave me an unpleasant look
Someone didn't say something I wanted them to say
Getting stuck in the middle of a task
Trying something and failing, etc.
When something like these things happens, I become stressed about the situation itself, and I feel like I shouldn't be experiencing them because stress is harmful.
It's like I'm stressing myself out twice when I could just be stressed out once.
This resistance turned me into an avoidant.
"I envy people who are stress-resistant"
"Stress is bad for me, and this job is making me stressed. I shouldn't do it."
These thoughts dominated a lot of my behavior.
In one of my favorite podcasts, the Huberman Lab podcast by a Stanford professor named Andrew Huberman, How to Enhance Performance & Learning by Applying a Growth Mindset, the concept of a Stress-Is-Enhancing Mindset, in addition to a growth mindset, came up in an episode and it was a breath of fresh air and very interesting to me as I had always thought of stress as something bad and to be avoided.
Researchers at Yale University are finding that simply changing the way you think about stress can curb its negative consequences and even lead to positive outcomes from stress.
Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist, and professor at Stanford University, gave a TED talk called "The Power of Stress," in which she discusses how we can change our mindset about stress and use it to grow.
At the beginning of her book "Upside of Stress, she describes an experiment with hotel cleaners in which one group was told that moving around while cleaning was good for their health, and the other group was not given that information, and then a few months later, when they were checked up on, the health of the group whose mindset had been shifted to "cleaning=exercise" was noticeably better. The difference was that "hard work and something you don't want to do" became "exercise that benefits your health" and actually had an impact on your health.
In other words, it's the way you think about stress (helpful or harmful) that has a bigger impact than the stress itself.
After all, stress is something that can never be completely avoided.
The black-and-white logic that stress is always bad ends up creating more stress.
For example, when we exercise to get fit, we're stressing our muscles to build muscle in the process of recovery, and when we get the vaccine, we're artificially putting chemical stressors into our bodies to boost our immunity. If we hide away and do nothing because we don't like stress, will there be no stress? No. If we do nothing for years, there will be the stress of boredom or lethargy.
If we can't get rid of stress altogether, isn't it wise to reframe and get benefit from it?
Here's how to use Professor McGonigal's "Stress-is-enhancing" approach.
Start by thinking about an event or situation that has been stressful for you recently
1. Notice changes in your body
When we experience stress, it shows up in our bodies. Your body reacts in its own way: your heart beats faster, you sweat, you get short of breath, your stomach hurts, and your throat gets dry. If your senses are heightened and sharpened, it's a reminder that you're paying attention, but it also means that it's giving you the energy and focus to do what you need to do. The stress response in your body can be seen as anxiety or it can be seen as excitement.
2. Notice if you feel more connected to others [pro-social response]
Have you ever experienced a stressful situation and felt like you wanted to be close and connected to your friends or family? If you've ever felt more sensitive to other people's feelings or had a desire to connect with them, researchers say this is a "pro-social response". External stress can bind us closer to others and give us the courage to protect, support, and defend our loved ones.
3. Notice if you've learned anything [Values check]
You may have experienced stress, and after your body has settled down, you've analyzed and understood and reflected on the event in your mind, and realised that it's part of your growth - the stress itself can help you process and integrate things, balance your nervous system, and help you learn and grow. And it's important to think about what stress means to you, and to understand that we get stressed about things that are important to us (people who value social acceptance and work are more likely to get stressed about work, and people who value relationships have more difficulty with relationship problems).
I'm not suggesting that you suddenly change your mindset to "Stress is a fantastic thing".
It's just that if your current thought pattern is "I hate stress" or "I shouldn't have any stress" and your resistance is making you feel more negative about stress than you need to, it's important to take it slow.
"What does this stress mean to me?"
"How can this situation grow me?"
"What if this is an opportunity to develop my problem-solving skills and mind muscles?"
It's been said that even in the most painful situations, humans are hardwired to find hope, make choices, and create meaning.
I'm sure you can think of at least one event from your past that you can look back on and see as an opportunity for growth.
I had a very difficult relationship with my mum and a very stressful relationship with my friends when I was younger, and at first, I chose avoidance, which is avoidance at all costs, but later I grew tremendously by using it as a growth opportunity and noticing my values "connections", and now I'm coaching people. I probably wouldn't be who I am today if I hadn't had relationship difficulties (stress) as a child, and it took me a lot longer because I wasn't aware of this mindset then, but now I'm much better at using the inevitable stress in my life.
In conclusion, It's healthier to seek meaning than to avoid discomfort. The best way to make that decision is to follow through on creating meaning in your life and trust that you have the ability to handle the situations that come along with it.