Stress is bad for you, right?
Kelly McGonigal tells us in her book, The Upside of Stress, whether stress is harmful or not, has a lot to do with how you view it.
People who believe stress is enhancing are less depressed and more satisfied with their lives than people who view stress as harmful. They also have a greater confidence in their ability to cope with challenges, and even find meaning in difficult circumstances.
In recent surveys, the American Psychological Association has found that most people in America perceive their personal levels of stress as unhealthy.
These people believe that experiencing stress: depletes their health and vitality, debilitates their performance and productivity, inhibits their learning and growth, is negative and should be avoided.
People who have this mindset about stress are much more likely to say that they cope with stress by trying to avoid it. They are more likely to:
- Try to distract themselves from the cause of the stress instead of dealing with it.
- Focus on getting rid of their feelings of stress instead of taking steps to address its source.
- Turn to alcohol or other substances or addiction to escape the stress.
- Withdraw their energy and attention from whatever relationship, role or goal is causing the stress.
Obviously, this reinforces the belief that stress is bad and should be avoided at all costs.
But as we turn our attention towards the benefits of embracing stress, we’ll find a much different story emerges.
Changing from a negative mindset to a positive one
As it turns out, you have a choice about how you respond to stress.
A minority of people in the general population believe that stress enhances their lives. These people believe that experiencing stress: enhances their performance and productivity, improves their health and vitality, facilitates their learning and growth, is positive and should be utilised.
Where people with a negative mindset towards stress try to cope with stress, people with a positive mindset towards stress try to use it to their advantage. They are much more likely to:
- Accept the fact that the stressful event has occurred and is real.
- Plan a strategy for dealing with the source of stress.
- Seek information, help, or advice.
- Take steps to overcome, remove, or change the source of stress.
- Try to make the best of the situation by viewing it in a more positive way or by using it as an opportunity to grow.
So, just by creating a positive mindset about stress, you can turn self-doubt into confidence, fear into courage, and isolation into connection.
The insight from the research is that you get what you expect. If you expect stress to be a negative experience, that’s exactly what you will get. If you expect it to be a positive experience, that’s exactly what you’ll get.
Stress helps you engage
The stress response does several things that will help you perform well under pressure. It focuses your attention, heightens your senses, increases your motivation, and mobilises energy. This is true even when the stress doesn’t feel helpful, which is the case when people experience anxiety.
So, when you are feeling overwhelmed, look for opportunities to do something for somebody else that goes beyond your regular responsibilities.
Adversity can make you stronger
The science shows that plenty good can come from stressful or traumatic experiences. Here are some of the positive changes that are commonly reported in cases of hardship, loss, 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.
The good that comes from difficult experiences isn’t from the event itself – it comes from you.
What it requires is for you to look back on the difficult experiences from your past, and to reflect on the positive changes that came from them. Then, when you are faced with future stressful situations, you’ll be able to recall how you were able to overcome them in the past to help you overcome them in the moment.
This creates a growth-mindset towards adversity.
Ultimately, if you are trying to do big things in your life (the fact that you are listening to this would suggest that’s the case), you are going to face adversity. Lots of it.
How you choose to deal with it is up to you. One path leads to growth and the fulfilment of your goals, and the other leads you despair and inaction.
And when you look at it that way, there really is only one choice.