The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it. – Kelly McGonigal

When I scroll through blog posts about health and stress, it seems that many experts focus on how to reduce stress. Stress is often labelled as the enemy.  It is seen as something to be avoided at all costs. I recently found an interesting book, The Upside of Stress, written by a Kelly McGonigal, who is a professor at Stanford.  Considering the title of the book, you probably could guess that she is not of the opinion that stress is always a negative thing.  In fact, stress has many positive attributes.

How did stress get such a bad reputation?

McGonigal discusses in the beginning of the book why we have a such a negative view of stress. She explains that most studies that show that stress is negative are conducted by torturing rats and measuring their response. When I say torture, I mean they actually tortured rats by throwing them in water to the point of drowning, and then rescued them, or put them in cages with larger and more violent rats to allow them to be attacked repeatedly. While that certainly would stress someone out, it may not be the best way to simulate the stress that we experience at work.

Most of the studies that are conducted on stress are of the tortured rat variety or they skew the statistics by testing whether or not people view stress as negative, and determine that to be stress. What I mean by that, is that if a person of equal stress viewed it as positive, it did not count as stress. I don’t think either of these methods paint a true picture how we are truly impacted by stress.

How can we turn stress into a positive?

The secret to turning stress into a positive is very simple. We need to view it as a positive resource before we can receive many of the benefits from stress. Here are a few reasons why we should view stress as a positive thing:

  1. Higher stress means higher meaning– This one is obvious if you think about it for a minute.  When you experience stress, it’s typically because you care about something enough to think about it. If you are not stressed at all, maybe you should consider pushing yourself  a little harder. Maybe you need to commit to a relationship. Maybe you need to commit to a goal or dream larger than yourself. Anyone who has kids understands that stress and meaning often go hand and hand. Higher meaning has also been shown to increase the happiness in people’s lives, and a positive correlation in stress and happiness has been demonstrated in McGonigal’s book.
  2. Higher stress can mean higher performance – One study indicates the a positive view of stress can result in increased cardiovascular, physiological, and cognitive benefits. Simply put, if we view stress positively it will actually increase our performance mentally and physically. Stress becomes a great tool for better performance. If you have ever watched a football game when players are getting pumped before a big game, you’ve seen a positive impact of stress, as the players will perform better due to the stress of playing in a big game as long as they view the experience as a positive challenge.
  3. It can help us connect with others – Many people feel more connected when they encounter stressful situations with each other. I have never been in the military but I have seen the strong relationships that can develop when people experience stress together. I think the connection is more than just people who have spent a lot of time with each other. A deep connection is developed when two parties go through a struggle together as a team. This is not the say that anyone who goes through stressful situations together will have a deeper bond. Sometimes negative stressful experiences tears relationships apart, but more often stress brings people together.
  4. A positive view of stress can help us live longer – Viewing stress positively can help us live longer according to this Ted Blog:

    The study: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison asked almost 29,000 people to rate their level of stress over the past year as well as how much they believed this stress influenced their health — a little, a moderate amount or a lot. Over the next eight years, public death records were used to record the passing of any subjects.

    The findings: People who reported having high levels of stress and who believed stress had a large impact on their health had a whopping 43% increased risk of death. On the other hand, those that experienced a lot of stress but did not perceive its effects as negative were amongst the least likely to die as compared to all other participants in the study.

  5. More stress means higher resilience – There are plenty of studies that can validate that the more stress you have, the more you get better at dealing it. We have all experience a friend who had parents who sheltered them from stress and spoiled them their entire adolescent life. When these people experience stress as an adult tend not to respond well.  In my own life, I have had to force myself into more stress and over the years I have been able to handle larger loads of stress. I’m to the point that I have my wife, two small children, MBA courses, a decent career,  healthy workout habits, and this blog, and I really don’t feel any negativity towards the stress that it puts on me. I have been learning to embrace it and I actually enjoy it.  Once I complete one thing, I look for additional things to complete, like writing a book. Maybe I’m sick in the head, but I believe that putting ourselves in stressful situations is what life’s all about.
  6. Stress encourages action – If you did not feel any stress about getting a task done at work, school, or in your finances you wouldn’t be likely to plan very hard to get it done. Again, most of the things we feel stress about are important things. It wouldn’t be good if you didn’t feel some obligation to take care of those tasks.  Stress about not completing tasks is a driver towards action as long as we view the stress as a challenge (positively) and have a mentality that we can develop a plan to get the tasks done.  If we have a view that we’re in over our heads, this stress will have a negative impact on our lives, so it is important to maintain a positive attitude about completing tasks.

These are just six of the things that stress can help us with. I’m sure there are many other positive things associated with stress, but I encourage you to do more research for yourself on the topic. It’s super important that you understand how stress can benefit you so that you can have a positive view of it. Having a positive view of stress is the only way that you will properly utilize it’s benefits.

I don’t typically do this, but please use this link to buy The Upside of Stress, by Kelly McGonigal. You’ll not only be helping me out by purchasing through the link, but you’ll be helping yourself out by learning more about how to properly utilize stress. If you’re not a reader, you can watch McGonigal’s Ted Talk below:

Thanks, as always, for reading, and I hope you find this post helpful in embracing stress today!

Robert Krickeberg

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