How do you feel in your body when you hear the word stress? I’ll give you a second to tune in. We spend so much time trying to avoid stress, but what would happen if we leaned into it? What would happen if we allowed ourselves to feel it? How we relate to stress is important to making it work for us in a positive way.
Oftentimes, we view stress as a constricting, negative input that we associate with feelings of overwhelm and feelings of being unsettled. Stress can certainly create those feelings in the body, but we usually feel this way when the stressful feelings become unmanageable. Stress can also become too elevated when it turns into anxiety. Stress turns into anxiety when we start asking too many questions and trying to predict the future when there is no way to actually do that. Stress also becomes a challenge when we try to ignore the discomfort it may be causing. The problem with trying to ignore discomfort is that it will not make it go away. In fact, suppressing the feelings around stress will only make it worse.
Our relationship with stress, especially in the form of mindset and attitude is actually more impactful than the stimulus that is causing the stress itself. There’s a wealth of scientific research on stress and how we can use your mind and self-awareness to optimize stress.
As athletes, we intentionally put our bodies under stress because we need stress to grow and improve. Our workouts create stress and our muscles breakdown, and our recovery days are what enable us to recover from that stress and get stronger. If you’ve had a big project at work, the stimulus or pressure of having to get something done can create stress. Sometimes that acute stress can be motivating and have you do focused work. Other times, having a big project can create too much stress and anxiety. So how do we manage and how should we think about stress?
What is the Stress Response?
Our body needs to react to life-threatening situations- it’s the body’s response to keeping us safe. From an evolutionary standpoint, it kept us alive from tigers lurking in the grass. Today’s tigers are a little more insidious- start lines, our job, mortgages, potential sickness… and our minds love to take the ball and run with thoughts about future negative outcomes that haven’t even happened yet. If you want to know why we tend to focus on the negative, here’s my podcast and article on our negativity bias.
Our body responds accordingly when we encounter a stress response. Our culture has labeled this response as a negative thing, but really? The stress response gives us energy, focus, and oxygen.
Here’s how it works:
- adrenaline increases heart rate, preparing you for action
- your breathing speeds up when your heart rate increases, giving you extra oxygen
- cortisol increases sugar levels giving you extra energy
Extra energy, focus, and oxygen doesn’t sound all that bad, does it?
Mantra: “Stress gives me extra energy, focus, and oxygen so I can perform at my best.”
What Can We Learn From Leaning Into Stress?
As I mentioned earlier, avoiding stress and even shrinking away from the discomfort it might initially cause is simply not effective. Avoiding stress or stuffing it can cause health issues and anxiety.
The first step to making stress work for you is simply to notice and acknowledge it.
The way you think about stress after acknowledging it gives you power. Treating yourself with self-compassion saying something like, “It’s okay” or “This feeling is normal” or even “This is going to help me perform at my best” makes a measurable difference. There was a Harvard study conducted where researchers asked students to say “I am calm” while others were instructed to say “I am excited” before giving a speech. The group that said “I am excited” felt more confident and handled the pressure better, and gave better speeches. They noticed the energy in their body and made it work for them.
Positive mantras help reframe stress into strength. We feel the energy of stress before or during an important phone call, at the start line of a race, or before giving a talk to a group. Telling yourself that this is your body trying to help you can help calm the mind. It probably won’t bring your heart rate down, but it lessens the fear around the stress. Next time you feel stressed, try saying “I’m excited” or a phrase that resonates with you instead of labeling stress as a negative thing you should be avoiding.
Acute stress is actually good for us because it helps us perform. Chronic stress, however, can be the culprit for the landslide of health issues associated with stress. Chronic stress results in elevated cortisol for long periods of time, moodiness, and sickness that can lead to more serious diseases. Interestingly enough, in a 2006 US Study, researchers noted that while chronic stress increased negative health outcomes, it only affected people who identified stress as being harmful. People who believed stress could be helpful or that it simply wasn’t harmful weren’t affected in the same way. Chronic stress is linked to our mindset around stress.
Thoughts about stress tend to perpetuate into negative thought loops. A stimulus causing a stress response is actually pretty brief. It’s our mind and the ruminating about our fear that causes most chronic issues with stress. Dr. Jud Brewer wrote a great book called Unwinding Anxiety that encourages us to use curiosity to identify these thought loops. Simply asking, “What am I getting from this?” can pull you out of the loop. For more, listen to the podcast I recorded with him. He says that fear + uncertainty = anxiety. The reasoning part of your brain can go offline when you are stressed or anxious. By engaging the part of your brain that involves curiosity brings a new perspective. We can waste so much energy worrying because we feel like worrying is a form of control- worrying gives us something to do.
Another perspective shift is that stress is a reaction of your body saying, “Hey! You care about this thing!” Caring about something is actually a good thing! Researcher and Professor a suggests that you can reappraise your stress by asking these questions to gain insight from your stress: Why am I stressed about it? What do I care about? Is there an opportunity here?”
Stress can build resilience and confidence, especially when you think big picture. Recalling a stressful situation that you overcame in the past reminds you that you can handle and even thrive through your stress. Assessing past wins in different contexts build efficacy and confidence reminding you that you can handle anything that comes your way. Ask yourself, “When did you rise to a stressful occasion?”
When we get stressed, we also tend to narrow our focus and even become self-obsessed. Thinking bigger picture or thinking of how you can help others when you are stressed pays large dividends. Social connection is one of the first things to go when we are busy and stressed and yet is one of the most important allies in helping us feel connected and manage our stress. It helps us get out of our head when we spend time with others.
Your mindset and attitude towards stress shape the way we view challenges. And when stress starts feeling out of hand, a person who takes a more positive mindset towards stress will come up with and execute strategies to help with stress management.
Here are some other stress management tips I like to practice in addition to the strategies I’ve already listed:
- Adopt a regular breathwork practice. Breathwork is something we cover in my mindset course. One of my favorites is box breathing where you inhale for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds,,etc.
- Try meditation, especially stress specific meditations you can find in any meditation app. Focus on breathing out the stress and having your exhales be longer than your inhales
- Go to bed an hour earlier every night or get more sleep
- Therapy and talking about your stress
- Journaling to give perspective
- Exercise- we know this one!
- Eat healthily- processed foods don’t make us feel good
- Avoid alcohol, especially when you’re stressed
- Talk to a friend
On an interesting cultural note:
Researcher Kelly McGonical identified something called the stress paradox: happy lives contain stress, and stress-free lives don’t guarantee happiness. In her research, she saw that nations that had higher levels of stress were likely to have higher GDP, longer life expectancy, and improved quality of life. When we challenge ourselves and expand the limits of our comfort zone, it can cause stress- but this can be a good, adaptive stress that brings meaning, purpose, and confidence to our lives. Trying to manage the line of helpful stress versus going overboard and getting burnt out is a challenge, but it starts with the self-awareness to identify how you’re feeling and what it’s doing for you.
Key Takeaways on Making Stress Work For You
- Acknowledge and notice stress
- Identify that stress gives you energy and focus
- Use a mantra like “I’m excited” or “Stress helps me perform” to reframe “I’m nervous” or stressful self-talk
- Approach stress and anxiety thought loops with curiosity. “What am I getting from this?”
- Realize that stress means you care. Ask questions to delve into the insight that stress gives you
- Look for past positive experiences with stress
- Reach out and help others when you feel stress to get out of your own head
- Periods of intensity need to be followed by periods of rest to adapt to stress (physical or mental)