The common narrative we’ve all come to believe is that stress is always bad for us, negatively impacting our lives in myriad ways. It reduces our mental and physical health, diminishes our work performance and energy levels, and jeopardises our relationships. However, to all of us who long for a less stressful life, there is some really good news, especially as we start to experience all the pressures associated with the impending festive season – runaway costs, socialising and expectations.
Whilst all experts agree that the risks to health and wellbeing associated with a stress overload are real, recent research suggests that stress can actually become our best friend. It all depends on how we choose to interpret the inevitable stress and worries that are associated with every day life and it now appears that stress is only bad for us if we perceive it that way.
So how do we create positive energy out of stress? There are several steps we need to follow:
- See stress for what it is: a simple physiological response to a demanding situation (actual or perceived) in which the body prepares itself for a possibly extreme event. In our evolutionary past this would have mostly involved fighting an enemy or predator, or running for our lives. Nowadays, it is more likely to involve issues around self esteem, health, money and job security, childcare, elderly or sick relatives, traffic and so on. In other words, mostly issues we can neither fight nor run away from. We are all familiar with the heightened reaction to a stressful situation. Our hearts begin to race, we feel tension throughout our bodies and we can experience feelings of worry, panic or even anger. These reactions and emotions should be fleeting lasting up to 90 seconds, at the most. They only last longer – hours, days, months or even lifetimes – if we choose to make them part of our ongoing life story. “I usually fail.” “I’m always getting sick.” “I’m never appreciated at work.”
- Reframe the experience of stress. Recognise the full experience of the stressful state and acknowledge that it is an important indicator of how much we care about the situation we are in or the task we are about to perform. When we care a lot, we inevitably experience more stress. This is true for all the important things in life: relationships, parenting, health and work. If we are not stressed about a particular situation it usually means we are not invested in any particular outcome. Studies show that people who report greater daily stress are also more likely to say that their lives are more meaningful and, according to Gallup World Polls, the happiest people on earth report high, not low, levels of stress.
- Understand the see-saw link between emotions and the rational mind. When we are stressed if our emotions take over, our rational mind and ability to reason shuts down. If we choose to remain positive and clearheaded during stressful situations our brain will predominate and start to see creative possibilities and solutions. Stress can then be experienced as a welcome challenge rather than an existential threat.
- Focus on what can be controlled. The most positive thing we can do when faced with stress is to distinguish between the things we can change and those we cannot. All of us spend far too much time feeling stressed about choices we have made, opportunities we have lost and situations we cannot change. Shawn Achor, in his book The Happiness Advantage, describes a useful exercise we can do which he calls the ‘island experiment’. He recommends listing all of our life stresses and then classifying them into two circles or ‘islands’. One island holds all the things we can control; the other island holds the stressors that are beyond our control. We need to then totally ignore that second island and choose a single concrete action to take in the first island. This will kick start the process of transmuting stress into positive action and energy.
- Create a network of support. Having sympathetic friends to turn to during times of stress will help to reduce the feelings of isolation that can accompany prolonged stress. However, we need to choose our friends wisely. People who are always negative and focus on things that cannot be changed will not help us deal with our own stress in a positive way.
Find activities and hobbies that antidote stress. These will be different for each person. For some of us it will involve exercise in the form of a swim, walk, run, bike ride, dance class or gym workout. For others it will involve reading, making handicrafts, music, painting, yoga or meditation.
Remember that stress is an indicator that something is important to you rather than as a cause for anxiety or worry
Focus on the activity or task at hand, rather than the emotion associated with the situation
Develop social connections so that you have people to turn to in times of stress
Find absorbing hobbies and activities that antidote the negative effects of stress
Use breathing exercises during acute stress. Even as few as three deep breaths can instantly calm feelings of anxiety and allow the rational mind to prevail
Stress about things that are out of your control
Spend time with people who are negative and make you feel more anxious
Assume your stress is going to last forever – nothing does