It used to be that death and taxes were the only unavoidable things in life, but stress, it seems, has joined the club. As it turns out, however, stress has always been there –- and it can actually be a good thing. Or rather, stress can become something beyond good and bad. It can become a tool that, when used correctly, will give insight, teach lessons, and help you grow and evolve.
Today, stress seems to be the root of all evil, from illness and burnout to beauty problems and poor sex lives. But Hans Selye, the “father of stress,” would have a bone to pick with that view.
Selye, the Nobel-nominated endocrinologist who actually coined the term “stress,” saw stress as a way of adapting to change. As Selye told the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, even when we sleep, our heart keeps pumping, our lungs breathe, our adrenal system reacts to dreams.
“The absence of stress is death,” he famously added.
The dangers of minimizing, managing, and hoping stress goes away:
So, if stress is an intrinsic part of life, why do we feel like it’s such a burden? According to executive director of The American Institute of Stress, Dr. Heidi Hanna, it’s all about redirecting the energy of stress.
The way we deal with stress now is disruptive. “Instead of actually looking at what’s happening in the water, we just try to build a bigger boat,” says Hanna of the typical reaction to stress.
“Minimize it, manage it, and hope it goes away,” are our most common avenues when it comes to facing stress, Hanna elaborated during a TEDx Talk.
We minimize it by blaming it on external factors, or hide from it, hoping it will resolve itself or just disappear, or we justify not addressing the issue since it isn’t as bad as other people’s struggles.
We never truly remove stress or stressors from our lives– we just move things around until it catches up with us– or our loved ones when we lash out at them.
What if stressing really is a blessing?
What if there’s another way? Hanna, a published stress expert, challenges audiences to a paradigm shift: take the energy of stress and channel it into learning.
Now that doesn’t mean cracking open a 7th grade calculus book next time your manager stresses you out. What it does challenge you to do is take a look at why you’re reacting with stress to a situation.
Why are these circumstances making you feel like it’s more than you can handle? Why are you in your current situation and what do you need to do get out of it, feel better or avoid it repeating?
Going from feeling overwhelmed to feeling positively challenged takes time and practice.
It’s a skill to perfect in time, to get to a point where stress allows us to grow and evolve. But while the typical fight, flight, faint, or freeze reactions to a perceived danger overtire our brains, especially when we’re experiencing those responses over a prolonged period of time, shifting our stress into curiosity energizes the brain.
Instead of becoming exhausted and cranky under the pressure of just reacting to stress, when we shift into curiosity mode, we allow the brain to relax into discovery: picking up new information, discovering fresh patterns of behavior, observing reactions in ourselves and others, increasing our brain’s plasticity, and growing our capability to evolve with our environment.
So instead of fearing stress, we can embrace it as our guiding light to growth and a better understanding of ourselves.
More tips for tackling stress: