Stress can bring out your best

Stress has been an enemy of mine for far too long, especially since I became a mother twelve years ago. Juggling work, parenting and the many trials of life is enough to cause anyone stress, right? I have done my best to get rid of stress through the power of positive thinking, denial, avoidance, and escape, none of which worked.

Over the past several months, I have been struggling with stress more than ever. My stress was showing up through overwhelm, irritation, frustration, complaining, and sometimes, even hopelessness. I have caught myself thinking, what I would normally deem as unthinkable, “I just can’t do this anymore.”

I finally got the kick in my behind that I needed to wake me up and address stress head on. The wake-up call came from my children making ongoing comments about me getting stressed out and it reminded me of when I was a child. When I was little I would worry about my mom getting stressed out and that worry got in the way of me having fun and being a kid. I DID NOT want my children worrying about me being stressed out, so I did what I always do when I have a problem- set a goal and GO FOR IT!

I decided to tackle my stress, head on. My goal began as- Eliminate stress from my life-but the more I pursued this goal, the more I realized that elimination is not the goal. The goal is for me to shift my mindset about stress, converting it from the enemy to my friend.

“What?” you may be asking. “Stress, a friend?”

Yes, stress is our friend, well, it can be! As I was working on my strategies for how I would tackle stress, I remembered a TED Talk about stress resilience by Kelly McGonigal. The talk is titled “How to make stress your friend.”

Kelly’s work as a health psychologist was transformed from one study. The findings in this study caused her to change the message she had been teaching for over ten years, the message that stress makes you sick and that it is the enemy. The study tracked 30,000 adults over an eight year period. They asked each person in the study, “How much stress have you experienced over the last year?” and “Do you believe that stress is harmful to your health?” Then they tracked the deaths from public records.

People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% increase risk of dying, but that was only true IF the person believed stress to be harmful to their health. People who experienced a lot of stress, but did NOT believe it to be harmful had the lowest risk of dying in the study, even lower than those who had only a moderate amount of stress, but believed that stress was harmful.

Over the eight year study 182,000 people died, not from stress, but from the belief that stress was bad for you, making the belief that stress is bad for you the 15th largest cause of death.

Kelly, then began to wonder, “Can changing how you think about stress make you healthier?” The answer is YES! When you change the way you think about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress. For example, some typical stress response symptoms are- your heart beats faster, your breath gets shorter, you sweat. Normally, we interpret these symptoms as anxiety or that we are NOT coping well under pressure. As a result the body responds by constricting your blood vessels, which is associated with cardiac disease. This response DOES make you sick.

However, when we view these symptoms as our body’s way of telling us that we are energized and prepared to meet the challenge, the blood vessels stay healthy and relaxed, very much like how we respond in moments of joy and courage. We perceive our pounding hard to be preparing us for action and our hard breathing as a means to getting more oxygen to brain, improving our performance. We overcome and we build our confidence.

Another very interesting way that the body responds to stress, making stress our friend, is the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a nuero hormone that is pumped into our system in a stress response to awaken our social instincts. It motivates us to seek support and nudges us to tell someone how we feel. It makes us crave physical contact with friends and family. It prompts us to do things that strengthen close relationships. Our stress response has a built in mechanism for stress resilience. That built in mechanism is human connection. I bet you are finding this extremely validating. Isn’t that what we do under stress, reach out to someone who cares? That’s oxytocin at work.

I love how science is revealing and confirming that what we believe matters. Our thoughts create. Our bodies believe and obey our thoughts, so let’s chose what we believe wisely. We can cause our stress response to bring out our best by believing it is there to help us better engage.

You really gotta watch the video. There’s plenty more useful data in it. Watch it here- “How to make stress your friend.”

Here’s a quick recap of what I got out of it:

  • Having a positive view of stress can extend your life. 
  • Stress can cultivate courage.
  • Stress can cultivate confidence.
  • Stress can create better relationships.
  • Stress can bring out our best.
  • DON’T AVOID STRESS- Chasing meaning is better for us than avoiding discomfort.

Join me this month, and for the rest of your life, in converting stress from creating overwhelm into fuel, creating empowerment. After all, biologically, stress can be the body’s way of energizing you to meet a challenge IF you believe it.

Remember, when you experience stress, that is your body’s way of telling you, “I got this! You can do this!”

And notice the release of oxytocin in your body, prompting you to reach out and get connection from those who care about you and want to support you overcome life’s challenges. Feel free to reach out to me! My purpose in this world is to encourage others and provoke courageous action!

With Love and Volition,