When (and How) Stress Can Be a Force for Good
From school exams to interviews and to deadlines, from early adulthood on we’re followed by a pretty consistent stream of stress. And this stress comes from all different places.
Growing up we were taught that stress is bad for us. And for good reason, as stress has been said to cause everything from headaches to serious illness, with very little left unaffected by its grip.
But what if stress isn’t what we think?
Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.
– Hans Selye
In her groundbreaking TED speech, researcher Kelly McGonigal tells a very different story about stress, one that forces us to completely rethink what we think of it and how we should react to it.
In her speech, she talks about a survey that was conducted on thirty-thousand U.S. adults over a span of eight years. The purpose of the study was to study the effects of stress by surveying and studying the health conditions of the participants at the time of the study and then monitoring the lifespan of said participants.
The study found that people who experienced high stress but did not view the stress as harmful had the lowest risk factor of anyone in the survey, far lower than those who saw stress as harmful (the highest risk factor) and even lower than the people who reported to have very little stress.
Could stress just be in our head? Could the brain’s response to stress change how stress affects us? It wouldn’t be the first time we discovered the brain was capable of something like this.
Why stress isn’t so bad
In a study performed at Harvard University, a group of participants were told to change how they view stress.
Participants were then put through a ‘social stress test’ where they were forced to give a stress-inducing public speech and then perform difficult math… all while onlookers gave them critical looks and acted like jerks with them.
Before they went through the social stress test, they were taught to rethink their stress response as helpful. That pounding heart is preparing you for action. If you’re breathing faster, it’s no problem. It’s getting more oxygen to your brain. And participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance, well, they were less stressed out, less anxious, more confident.
Typically stress triggers a constricting of the blood vessels, which is where the association of stress with heart disease comes from. However, the study participants that viewed their response to stress as helpful didn’t go through the same constricting of the blood vessels– their blood vessels stayed the same.
Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90s. And this is really what the new science of stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters.
How to use stress to your advantage
It’s important to keep in mind that this doesn’t necessarily mean we want to search out stressful situations. However, by changing the way we view stress it can become a helpful tool that sends our body and mind into preparation for performance without the negative consequences typically associated with long-term stress.
In many ways, stress is really just our resistance to a situation. By leaning into a stressful situation, as opposed to treating it like some unwelcome thing we want to push away, we can change our body’s response to it.
Instead of looking at it in this negative light, begin to see stress as almost a superpower, a special state that heightens our ability to focus and perform on a whim. After all, that’s essentially what it is.