Stress is always seen as a negative, awful thing. And sometimes it really is a negative, awful thing.
After all, stress is rough on our bodies. It might raise our heart rate and blood pressure. It might trigger headaches and tension. It might prevent us from being able to rest and relax. It might keep us up at night, wondering and worrying and staring at the ceiling.
But that doesn’t always have to be the case. Stress can actually be helpful, and we can use stress to better our lives (more on that below).
For instance, “a little stress emotionally can help build resiliency, bravery and confidence,” said Stefani Reinold, MD, MPH, a board certified psychiatrist and perinatal mental health expert in private practice in San Antonio, Texas. “A little stress physically can help grow our muscles, improve endurance, and increase cardiovascular health. Even relationship stress can improve trust and forge a stronger, more secure bond with those we love.”
In other words, stress gives us the opportunity to grow emotionally, physically and even spiritually, more so than if we’re “drifting along without any stress,” Dr. Reinold said.
For many of us, the problem with stress is that it can easily become overwhelming, especially if we don’t have the tools to navigate it effectively. The great news is that we can navigate it effectively when we adopt several key strategies. In fact, we can make stress work for us.
First, it’s important to understand what stress looks like for you. Pay attention to the situations that you deem to be stressful, said Michele Kerulis, EdD, LCPC, a professor with [email protected], Northwestern University’s Online Masters in Counseling Program and an executive committee member of the American Counseling Association. She suggested keeping a journal, and jotting down where you frequently experience stress (maybe at work or at home or during a specific activity). Then reflect on how you react to stress: What psychological and physical symptoms do you notice when stress strikes? Finally, she said, explore what stress means to you. How do you define stress?
As you’re identifying your personal stress patterns, consider using these strategies for capitalizing on stress, so you can create more fulfilling, less stressful days.
Use stress as a barometer. Stress can help us better understand whether something is actually worth it. For example, maybe you’re in a relationship that’s become stressful, so you decide to sort out whether you’d like to stay by exploring whether “the stress level [is] justified by the level of fulfillment it is bringing to your life,” said Alyson Cohen, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in working with adolescents, families and young adults in New York City.
This is also helpful when thinking about your job, Cohen said: “Are you being compensated for the amount of stress you are experiencing? Is the job supportive to stress experienced by employees? If you feel more stress than fulfillment, then that could be a signal to make a bigger change in your life.”
What’s causing you stress, and is it truly worth it? Or do you need to make some adjustments or pivotal decisions?
Use stress to spark self-care. “We can use stress to help us take better care of ourselves, since stress often makes our bodies signal louder than usual,” said Lauren Canonico, LCSW, a psychotherapist who offers affirmative counseling and therapy to adults and teens, and clinical consulting services to individuals and organizations in New York City.
For example, your thoughts won’t stop bouncing around inside your head, and you realize that you need to burn off some of that energy with a dance class or brisk walk, she said. Or you’re feeling tired, and you decide to take a break and lie down on the couch or meditate for 5 minutes or read a magazine or take a restorative yoga class.
Either way, stress invites us to honor our bodies—if we actually listen and act.
Use stress to create solutions. Stress is a sign that something isn’t working, which transforms it into an opportunity to find effective, creative solutions for the parts of the situation you can control.
Reinold, author of the book Let Your Heart Out, shared these examples: Your work situation is stressful, but right now you need the money and can’t change jobs. You decide to schedule regular fun lunch dates to lighten up your mood. You’re a stay-at-home mom who often feels lonely. You decide to join a local mom’s group, and hire a sitter so you can get together with your best friend once a week.
As Reinold emphasized, “There is always something, even if small, that you can control in stressful situations.”
Use stress to get energized. According to Kerulis, stress can boost our motivation and sharpen our focus. “If we think about stress in a more positive way, we have the control to interpret stressful situations in a way that we can use to reach our goals.”
That is, Kerulis was working with a public speaker who was terrified and would shake before going on stage. Kerulis helped the client to refocus on their meaningful message. “I encouraged the speaker to take deep breaths to slow down the stress response of increased respiration and to refocus the stressful energy into excitement to share with the audience.” Once the speaker changed their mindset, the unpleasant physiological symptoms decreased, and the speech was incredible, Kerulis said.
How can you use the energy of stress to work on your goals and desires?
Use stress to delve deeper. Stress can reveal the deeper work we might still need to do, Canonico said. For example, you’ve got a performance review coming up, and you’re stressed about it. Yes, you’re likely stressed because your work is important to you, and you want to make sure you’re doing a good job. Maybe you’re also anticipating a bad review, which is certainly stressful. But as Canonico said, this might stem not from fears about your job performance, but from fears around your self-worth. Consequently, you decide to see a therapist to further explore and strengthen your self-worth, so outside influences don’t sink or batter it.
When you’re faced with a stressful situation, it can help to ask yourself such questions, Canonico said: What am I afraid will happen? Is this stress purely about the present situation, or am I feeling shame (or something else) from a past situation?
Stress doesn’t always have to be so stressful. We can harness stress. We can use stress as a valuable signal and as an opportunity to find solutions, practice self-care, accomplish our goals, and learn important information about ourselves.