Stress gets a lot of negative press, and for good reason. Chronic stress is linked to a host of health and emotional problems. Yet stress comes in a variety of forms. Despite what the news headlines say, some types of stress are actually good for you. Consider the acute stress events of exercise and learning to ride a bike. Done properly, these events invoke a desired adaptation in mind and body.
In fact, research shows that moderate levels of short-term stress stimulate genesis of new brain cells. So keep up that exercise routine and those daily challenging crossword puzzles. Just remember that the stress should be acute, not chronic, and moderate, not excessive. Furthermore, it is not only the amount of stress you experience, but your perception of it that determines its lasting effects.
In this long-term study, 30,000 people were asked, “Do you believe stress is harmful?” Those who answered “yes” were 30 percent more likely to die if they encountered stressful events in the following year. Those who answered “no” had no increased mortality stemming from stressful events. It’s not exactly clear why this is the case, but one may expect that the people who believe that stress is bad for them have a different attitude about it, and that attitude may have accounted for some of the differences.
Consider how a single event may be perceived differently by people. Imagine that Bill and Bob go skydiving. This might terrify Bill, whereas Bob finds it exhilarating. They are both having the typical stress response that includes an increased heart rate and adrenaline release, yet their emotional states are quite different. Bill sees the event as a threat and Bob sees it as a thrilling challenge.
How could the same event be viewed so differently? We might attribute it to upbringing, traumatic experiences, or even genetics. The good news is that we are not trapped by these factors; we have choice in how we perceive the world. The success of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has taught us that beliefs and views can be altered. Changing your view might be just the thing when the source of stress is unavoidable, such as traffic jams, project deadlines, and “challenging” kid moments. So how do we transform unhealthy, artery-clogging stress into healthy, sleep-like-a-baby eustress?
Take a moment to reflect on something that stresses you. Notice any fear around this issue. Does it feel like a threat? Once you’ve changed your attitude to see it as a challenge to conquer, you will likely feel better about it. Here are some strategies for doing just that:
- Think about a similar situation in the past that created stress for you. Remember that you got through it despite the amount of energy you put into worrying about it. Reflect on how better prepared you are now to overcome what faces you.
- Think about why this stressful situation deserves to be conquered.
- Time is unstoppable. No matter how terrifying something is now, one day you will be looking back on the whole event and you will see that you got through it just fine.
- Are you stressing over something uncontrollable? If so, cultivate acceptance for it and focus instead on things that you do have control over. There are always pieces of any problem that you have control over. At the very least, you can control your attitude about it.
- We often catastrophize and imagine the worst. Instead, reflect on what it will feel like to accomplish this task or overcome this obstacle. Visualize yourself just having successfully navigated the situation and connect with how that will feel. Repeat the visualization until it comes easily.
- Interpret the physical symptoms of stress (such as pounding heart and sweaty palms) not as nervousness but as signs that your body is preparing you to perform marvelously.
- We tend to overestimate how bad things will be. What if it doesn’t go the way you had hoped? Think about how you will keep moving forward in life. If the worst-case scenario is manageable, then what’s the point of worrying about it?