Have you noticed how mentioning the word “stress” today can engender quite a reaction?
This can take the form of an exasperated “Oh for goodness sake, everyone seems to think they own the trading rights to stress these days.”
Or sometimes it can be “Stress, you don’t even know the meaning of the word!”
Or even “Stress? Come on, get over it, and on with it!”
Stress is a normal physiological response to a change in our environment. It prepares the body to respond so as to be able to run away as fast as possible if you are in danger, or to stand your ground and put up a fight if the change is perceived as worth fighting for, or to freeze, where the experience of extreme fear can leave you rooted to the spot.
Seeing that stress is a normal physiological response that we recognise as a quickening of the pulse, an increase in our breathing rate and a dilatation of our pupils, why have we developed such predominantly negative connotations about stress?
Some people perceive our current way of living is “stressful”, with a full to excessive workload, difficult interpersonal relationships or financial difficulties.
Putting those issues to one side, I want to suggest to you that you can look at stress another way, and reframe your perception and regard it instead merely as a way your body serves you to prepare you to manage a particular situation.
While simple acute stress is well recognised as being appropriate to keeping us safe from predators in the jungle it is severe, chronic stress that has been identified as being detrimental to our health and wellbeing. This is the type of stress that we allude to when we complain about how “stressed” we are. It’s the sort of stress that keeps you awake at night, worrying. This type of stress is known to be a risk factor contributing to an increased risk of physical and mental illness including anxiety and depression and more worryingly still, cognitive decline. But a recent study made the amazing discovery that this is true only if you believe that stress will cause you harm. If you don’t hold that belief, it is less likely to!
So, in just the same way as you can talk yourself into feeling unsure, anxious or worried, you can choose to talk your way into believing that the situation is under control and all will be well.
If you are thinking – this all sounds just like that “positive thinking” or “woo-woo magic” you are half way right. But this is not happy clappy, rose tinted thinking, this is based on keeping things real, accepting how things are but not falling into the trap of catastrophising or assuming the worst.
This is all about using stress to your advantage.
The classic stress performance curve is an inverted U and a lot of the emphasis has been focused on working out how to prevent us ending up on the slippery road down to poorer performance, once a critical tipping point is reached.
What has not been accentuated as much is that the other side of the U demonstrates how useful stress is to enhance performance.
When students are under extra pressure (aka stress) prior to exams, their performance increases. Knowing you have that deadline looming fast puts the pressure on in a good way. You step up, lift your game and get the work done, and done well in the allotted time.
Stress is inherently useful for us when developing new skills sets, our leadership potential and professional development.
Choosing to reframe how you see stress may not only help reduce your likelihood of becoming sick, it can promote your wellbeing and performance. Acknowledging the changes your body is experiencing and saying to yourself, “this is good because my body is now ready to deal with this”, calms the mind and allows you the freedom to get on and deal with the cause of the stress more effectively.
Kelly McGonigal gave an excellent TED talk on this recently.
Your mind is capable of regulating your body’s response to a natural physiological phenomenon, so why not use this to your advantage and make stress something useful to work with.
In what ways could you adopt this strategy in your life and work?
What difference could it make to how you approach those problems and challenges you would otherwise call “stressful,” such as when making tricky decisions or judgment calls?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.