Why your stress may have an upside

There are as many definitions of stress as there are humans on the planet. Think about what the word brings to mind for you:

A looming work deadline…

A child struggling with his grades…

An upcoming race to beat your best time…

Way too many entries on your weekly calendar…

Just imagining a stressful event or situation may make your heart beat faster, your palms sweat and your mind kick into high-alert mode.

But what if that stress response isn’t always bad? What if it can actually be beneficial?

Researchers are digging deeper into understanding how emotional stress affects our bodies and minds. And they’re finding that there is more to the story than you might expect from all the bad press about stress.

In fact, the right amount of challenge–coupled with a healthy attitude about it–can help move you to action and make you more resilient.

Take stress in the workplace: Research has shown that job-related challenges can…

Boost initiative. A moderate amount of stress (not too much–not too little) can inspire employees to take action and boost their skills to meet demand.

Help with problem-solving. Stress boosts your brain’s ability to anticipate and plan for the unexpected.

Fine-tune your focus. Stress recruits your mind’s attention resources and can help your brain process information more quickly.

Enhance memory. The hormones that are part of your body’s stress response boosts memory and other thinking performance.

Stress as energizer? Why it makes evolutionary sense

When humans lived much closer to physical predators, our bodies’ stress reactions could be life-saving.

Imagine living in a cave where tigers freely roamed. If a tiger approached, your brain’s fear center—the amygdala—would send a message to the hypothalamus, the response center. That response center, in turn, would rally the adrenal glands to release epinephrine. You would become focused. Your reflexes would fire, your senses sharpen. You’d shimmy up a tree…crisis averted.

Today’s threats are far tamer. But those same systems are still at work in our bodies, responding to anything our minds perceive as threatening: a difficult conversation with a coworker; rush-hour gridlock; running late for an appointment.

Whether these so-called threats harm us or make us stronger depends on how we think about them.

The important role of mindset

Studies show that stress takes more of a toll when you think it’s taking a toll. If you can see difficulty as a chance to learn and grow, you can use it to strengthen your inner resources.

  • Researchers looked at stress mindset in a group of nearly 400 financial firm employees. They compared employees with a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset to employees with a “stress-is-debilitating” mindset. The group with an enhancing mindset had better health, higher life satisfaction, and superior work performance.
  • In a follow-up phase of the same study, people who started out with a negative mindset about stress grew in well-being and work performance after they were exposed to a series of brief videos on the benefits of stress.

Even major negative events or long-term hardship have the potential to change us for the better. They may build mental toughness and give us a sense of mastery. They can reinforce priorities, strengthen relationships, and increase our sense of meaning.

Recognize when emotional stress turns to cellular stress

A healthy perspective can help you read the signals that stress has become chronic and destructive—when it’s time to take extra care of yourself. Irritability, racing heartbeat, negative thoughts, feeling overwhelmed: All of these are signs that it’s time to double down and take better care of you.

The stakes are high. Chronic, unmanaged stress ages us biologically and suppresses immune regulation. It can impair brain structure and function. It leaves us more susceptible to infection, depression, heart disease, and even some types of cancer.

Understanding and resilience strategies are the key to optimal functioning even in times of chronic stress.

You have more power than you think

So much is outside of your control, from major life events to tricky relationships, natural disasters to serious illness. But there’s a lot you can control: what you eat, how much you move, what time you go to bed, and, of course, our attitude toward stress.

Those who study resilience promote these powerful strategies for resilience in the face of even the toughest psychological and emotional stressors.

A positive affect. A self-confident sense that you can get through a rough period makes it more likely you’ll have a healthy response than if you perceive stress as catastrophic. And as the growing field of positive psychology would have it: it’s a perspective that you can learn.

Social support. The mechanism isn’t entirely clear, but researchers believe that connecting with others releases a hormone called oxytocin that may reduce the stress response.

Physical movement. Getting your heart rate up with even moderate exercise boosts the body's natural feel-good chemicals, using up stress hormones, protecting brain cells, and lowering blood pressure.

Goal orientation. Even small, regular accomplishments enable you to move toward your goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, "What's one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?”

Time for reflection. Adversity may provide opportunity for growth. Many who have experienced tragedies and loss have reported better relationships, greater sense of strength (even while feeling vulnerable), increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality, and heightened appreciation for life.

What’s your strategy? Just like there’s a different definition of stress for every individual, there’s also a different way of making the most of it. Only you can map your personal journey toward a more resilient way of being.

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