If you’re reading this, chances are good that you have dealt with some stress or anxiety in your life. I don’t know if there are many people who could honestly say that they haven’t. Stress is a pretty universal experience in life, especially for moms juggling raising kids while staying sane! It’s hard enough keeping your own life in order, but to also have the responsibility for helping these little ones develop into well-adjusted adults, c’mon! When we’re feeling overwhelmed by the stress, it’s also pretty universal to wish we could make the stress just disappear. To view the stress as bad, and as something that we would like to avoid forever. That makes complete sense, especially when we know that high levels of stress can increase the likelihood of dying by 43%!! Wow!
But… what if I told you it wasn’t the stress itself that caused the increased rate of death, but rather the BELIEF that stress is bad.
That is the premise of The Upside of Stress, a book by one of my psychology heroes, Kelly McGonigal, PhD. She is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University who has studied the effects of stress. While there are all sorts of studies to show a relationship between high levels of stress and negative health outcomes (e.g., likelihood of death, cardiovascular disease, illness, etc.), she has found that those individuals who do not perceive stress as harmful are at a lower risk for those issues. So there you go, just believe that stress is good for you and you’re cured! Okay, maybe it’s not quite that easy. I’ll go into detail on what Dr. McGonigal recommends for helping to adjust your perspective in a beneficial way after the video of her TED talk.
As I mentioned earlier, stress doesn’t exactly feel good, so we often go to great lengths to avoid it wherever we can. Unfortunately, when we try to avoid something, the rebound effect leads to it coming back even stronger. To see this for yourself, do NOT think of a pink elephant for the next 30 seconds. Yeah, so avoidance just ends up giving power to the thing we dislike, which is not exactly what we’re going for when trying to cope with stress better.
To begin to conquer stress and change our perception, we must be willing to experience the emotion. My post on mindfulness talks more about being able to experience something non-judgmentally, without trying to change it. By allowing yourself to experience the stress, and by giving it space and saying it is okay to feel that way in that moment, it actually takes power away from the stress. You don’t need to love the feeling, but rather just accept that it’s what you’re going through in this moment without pushing it away.
Stress and Meaning
Take a minute to think about the times in your life when you’ve grown the most as a person. Were these times easy, or was there stress involved? For most of us, growth means going outside our comfort zone, which also means a willingness to tolerate the resultant stress. Being able to view stress as something that will bring more meaning to your life, rather than as an obstacle to be overcome, is helpful when trying to shift your perspective. The most stressful thing in my life is my children. I love Mary and Abigail to the ends of the earth, but there is no denying that they will be the cause of many gray hairs over the next few years. Are there times when part of me longs for the life we had before children, of course. But those moments are fleeting as I am able to step back and recognize the meaning that those little girls have brought to my life. I love being a father, and those stressful times are made a smidge easier when I view them as contributing to the development of two future adults (and my own personal growth as well!).
Responses to Stress
Dr. McGonigal identifies four possible responses to stress. She labels them:
- Threat response – This is what most people think of, which is the fight or flight reaction. This is how we respond to a life or death survival situation. Our bodies prepare us to fight off the threat, or to run away from it. The whole goal is to simply survive another day.
- Challenge response – This is when you encounter a demanding situation and need to rise to the occasion. You perceive that there is an obstacle to be overcome rather than a life threatening situation. In this case, you view your body’s reaction as normal, and that its purpose is creating energy for you to take action. The stress arousal becomes your fuel to overcome the challenge.
- Tend and befriend – The stress response releases oxytocin (the cuddle hormone) which causes you to seek social support, and increases your empathic awareness of others. This pushes you to share your experience with others, and to help support those who are experiencing their own challenges.
- Excite and delight – If you really look at the body’s reaction to stress, it is very similar to the body’s reaction to excitement. The only difference in the emotions is the mind’s perception of the body’s signals. It’s like two sides of the same coin. Being able to view the response as excitement reduces your desire to try to avoid the stress. Consider two players getting pumped up before a big game. The one who views her reaction as excitement is likely going to perform better than the one who views it as anxiety about possibly messing up. This is where a little positive self-talk can come in handy. “I am feeling excited to tackle this challenge!”
Steps to Improve your stress coping
- Mindfulness – become aware of body’s sensations and experience them non-judgmentally
- Accept things that can’t be changed and change the things that can
- Stay solution focused and take action:
- Focus on your strengths and resources (we all have them, you just need to identify them)
- Break the issue into smaller, actionable steps
- Take one small step
- Take another step
- The Simple Catchphrase:
- This is what this is like (mindful acceptance), now what needs to be done (adaptive action), take a step, reach out for support
- Help someone else
Bonus: When you feel stress rising, ask yourself, what are my bigger than self goals and how is this an opportunity to serve them?
Values: Write out your most important values (e.g., being a caring mother, being the friend who reaches out, etc.), and every evening jot down how the day’s events contributed to you living out those values.