September 29, 2015
The belief that stress is beneficial could lengthen your life.
That was the conclusion of an eight-year study of 30,000 people and their stress. In the end, stress only increased the risk of death for people who thought it was bad. People with high stress who didn’t see it as harmful were actually less likely to die than people with low stress.
People who have a positive view of stress are more energetic, optimistic, focused, engaged, collaborative, creative, and productive. They are also less anxious, depressed, and sick. They get better grades and are less likely to burnout. Perhaps the reason they live longer is that their bodies exhibit a healthy stress response – one that’s actually good for the heart and mind – instead of taxing the system.
But how do we change our ingrained views about stress? Try reflecting on the following six questions, as recommended in Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress:
1. What is your attitude toward stress? Start by noticing the ways that you talk and think about your stress and other people’s stress. Most likely, it’s something along the lines of: Danger: Avoid at all costs.
2. What brings meaning to your life? What matters to you in life? Write about the roles, relationships, activities, and goals that are most important to you, and how you would feel if they didn’t exist. You wouldn’t have any stress, but would that be a better life?
3. How have you benefitted from stressful experiences? Take some time to reflect on a stressful experience from the past and try to identify the positives. Did you discover some personal strength, or deepen your relationships? Did you learn something that will be helpful when future adversities come along?
4. What is the cost of avoiding stress? Sometimes, in order to avoid stress, we turn down opportunities, resort to unhealthy behaviors (where’d all the Häagen-Dazs go?), or lower the bar for ourselves. Has this ever happened to you?
At this point, you may be starting to see that stress can sometimes be good for you. Now it’s time to put that idea into practice.
5. Why does my body feel stressed? The next time you feel your heart racing or your palms sweating, try to think about those physiological signs of stress differently. That’s actually your body gearing up to boost your energy, give you strength, and prepare you for the challenge ahead (seriously – this isn’t just wishful thinking; stress actually does serve an evolutionary purpose).
6. What is my story? If you’re going through a stressful experience, can you form a different narrative around it? It may feel overwhelming now, but eventually it will be in the past as a challenge you’ve overcome. Can you see evidence of positive growth and change already?
McGonigal explains that our stress mindset won’t change overnight, and we don’t have to become happy robots (stress is great!). Simply seeing some upside to stress, even alongside all the drawbacks, will make an impact.
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