“Hardiness is the courage to grow from stress.”

–  Salvatore Maddi, Psychologist at the University of Chicago

For so long, the mindset around stress was to just not. And that meant avoiding it, lessening it, or getting rid of it. Afterall, this is the stuff heart attacks are made of, right??

Wrong.

Stress itself is not a thing to be feared, but rather embraced and harnessed. And our efforts should be asserted towards changing how we think about stress not actually avoiding or eliminating it.

Whoa. I know this is a massive shift from the message you usually hear but stick with me on this…

When My Stress Mindset Was Turned Upside Down

It all started when I watched this TED talk (below) – “How to Make Stress Your Friend” presented by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Standford University. [Please, PRETTY PLEASE, watch this. It might just save your life.]

So here were my big takeaways from this mind-blowing, 14-minute talk:

  1. Individuals who have high levels of stress but do NOT view their stress as harmful have LOWER health risks than those who have low levels of stress.
  2. When you change your mindset about stress, you can change your body’s physiological response to it. The human body is nuts.
  3. Stress can have the same affects on your body as courage.
  4. Our stress response is actually helping us to be social and reach out for connection.

I love this quote from McGonigal,

“When you choose to see your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress, you create resilience.”

 

Wow…our stress response is so much more complicated and intricate than we previously thought! And thank goodness for that.

But could I have been also doing more harm than good all this time?? You can see why I needed to do so some deeper digging in order to best serve those I coach and connect with.

Not All Stress Responses are Created Equal

For so long, it was believed that stress is stress is stress. One response for all the many stressors in our life. But this is actually not true, we’ve got more to work with than you think. Check out the three types of stress responses below:

  • Fight or flight – This is the only one we thought we had for a long time. This is the evolutionary, survival mechanism that helped us learn from, flee from, and defend against life-threatening situations.The nervous system is activated and we get a good dose of hormones – adrenaline, testosterone, endorphins, dopamine. This stress response makes us alert and ready to act.
  • Challenge response – For less threatening situations, you still get an adrenaline spike and your heart rate increases but you feel focused, not terrified. There’s a different cocktail of stress hormones, but specifically more of a hormone with the name DHEA. DHEA is especially powerful for recovering (and learning) from stress. High achievers and performers are generally not “calmer under pressure,” they simply have a strong challenge response that helps them rise to the occasion with confidence and enhanced concentration.
  • Tend-and-befriend response – This response has a key hormone, oxytocin, which motivates you to connect with others. Oxytocin is also a therapeutic hormone that helps repair the heart. Yes, you read that correctly. This stress response is heart protective. So not only does the tend-and-befriend response give you the courage to protect people, communities, and beliefs that are important to you, it also makes your body more stress resilient in the process.

Start Shifting Your Stress Mindset

Research has shown that individuals who embrace aging actually live about eight years longer. Eight years! And that is simply from a positive mindset around aging. So it makes sense that a similar principle can be applied to stress.

In her book, The Upside of Stress: Why stress is good for you and how to get good at it, McGonigal states that,

“The most helpful mindset toward stress is one that is flexible, not black or white: to be able to see both sides of stress but choose to see the upside; to feel your own distress and yet decide to focus on how that stress connects to what you care about.”

 

Stress is a part of the human experience. And a meaningful life is NOT one without stress. We get stressed because we care! We care about our jobs, our families, our relationships, and everything in between. Stress is a result of an engaged life.

So instead of wishing it away or avoiding it, acknowledge your stress and own it. Start viewing your stress as an opportunity to build knowledge, skills, confidence, and relationships. The more you do, the more likely your body will respond with a challenge or tend-and-befriend response versus fight or flight.

Over time you will begin to see yourself as the kind of person who overcomes challenges and uses stress to your advantage.

Put Your New Mindset Into Practice

This shift won’t happen overnight, but the more you practice the more your default physiological responses will start to shift.

  • Help your body enable the appropriate stress response by asking yourself, “Which part of my stress response do I need most?” Do you need to fight or escape? Do you need engagement or connection? Do you need to be brave to overcome a fear? Do you need patience? Do you need growth? Identify what you need and focus on it.
  • Turn anxious energy into excitement. Before a big presentation, competition, speech, conversation, or anything that brings on anxious thoughts say to yourself, “I am excited” rather than “I am anxious.” It is a much easier shift than trying to be calm. Also, remind yourself when you have sweaty palms, an increased heart rate, or butterflies that you are doing something that is meaningful to you.
  • Provide context for your stress. It’s important to tie your stress back to your values and what gives your life meaning. This can be especially helpful with “daily hassles.” Yes, picking up groceries might feel tedious and mundane but when you connect this to nourishing yourself and/or your family so you can all feel healthy and vibrant, it changes how that stress manifests in your body.

  • Remind yourself that stress is a part of the human experience. It is NOT a sign of inadequacy or lack of resilience.
  • Take advantage of your nerves. A stronger stress response can actually be helpful for performance, a stronger boost of stress resilience, and more protective in the long haul. So instead of wishing for calm, use your stress response to power up!
  • Turn your overwhelm into hope. Be generous with your time, attention, and appreciation, even when it feels like you have none to spare. This primes the brain into positive action and to experience courage and connection when you need it most.
  • Focus on the bigger picture or your greater purpose. It’s easy to get bogged down with the small stuff at work and home. Next time, ask yourself, “How am I fulfilling my greater purpose in this world?” “How is this helping me live my values?”
  • Reach out. Your stress response is calling you to ask for support and seek connection. So instead of feeling like you need to go it alone, reach out for support from a trusted confidant.

Cheers to finding your happy & healthy place…not void of stress, but capitalizing on it!

References:

  1. McGonigal, K. (2016). The upside of stress: why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it. NY, NY: Avery.
  2. McGonigal, K. (2013). “How to Make Stress Your Friend” TED Talk:  https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend/up-next
  3. Wilson, J. L. (2014). Adrenal fatigue: the 21-century stress syndrome: what it is and how you can recover your energy, immune resistance, vitality and enjoyment of life. Petaluma: Smart Publications.

 

 

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