Good stress, bad stress. How to embrace the one and manage the other.
Stress is often called a disease of 21st century. It blamed for heart problems, stroke and many more other medical conditions. Dozens, if not hundreds of studies conducted, millions of dollars spent on research and yet, almost every one of us felt its unpleasant and even destroying effect on our mind and body. We all probably read an article or two about how bad stress is for us and were given all sorts of advises how to reduce the stress, how to coop with it. And it might have worked and helped some of us for a while, but new day had come and we all back to square one, stressed out for a million different reasons. Should we just surrender or is it a light at the end of the tunnel?
The answer is – yes, we can keep our hopes high.
One of the latest studies about stress concluded that stress is not always bad for us, its actually can be very good.
But first just a bit of theory about the stress.
Psychologists define 3 main types of stress: eustress – the one that has quite a lot of positive effects on us, which I will talk later, acute stress – famously known as fight or flight reaction to immediate danger or threat and finally chronic stress – this is the one we usually have in mind when talking about very negative effect on our mind and body.
I will put aside the acute stress, as it’s a necessary reaction, deeply embedded in us for our very survival as species, so it’s OK we have it and hopefully we won’t ever loose it.
Let’s talk about eustress, or in simple words, a good stress and how it can actually be good for us.
First of all, good stress can be a synonym of excitement, when there is no threat or fear presented. For example: anticipation of amazing trip, first date, horrific roller coaster. Our heart is racing, pupils are dilated, we breathe faster, all our senses seam to become stronger and sharper. Physiologically speaking, this is an abnormal reaction, it is a stress for our body, but at the same time this is what makes us feel alive, appreciate the moment, brings us happiness and sense of fulfillment.
Another positive effect is increase in neurotrophins production. Neurotrophin is a protein that induces the survival, development, and function of neurons. It’s like a food supplements for the neurons. In our brain, more neurotrophins translates into better and stronger connections between neurons which results in better memory, we can stay focus for longer periods of time, our productivity is increasing. So, when we have a tight schedule, fast approaching deadline for some project or just a lot going on at the same time, with this biological stress reaction our body helps us rise to the challenge.
Stress can also help us to build stronger resilience to the stress. Sounds like a paradox? But it’s true. Imagine that resilience to the stress is another muscle in our body. When we are working out, we are using our muscles, training them by repeatedly doing the same exercise or series of physical movements to make those muscles bigger and stronger. In order to accomplish our goal, we have to work out regularly and after a while we feel positive change in our bodies. But what happens when we want to compensate for months of no exercising at all or when we want results faster then our body can deliver – we pay for it next morning with a stiff muscles and pain from head to toe. And if we haven’t learned the lesson and continued this work out overload, we get chronic pain, inflammation and other unpleasant medical conditions, which can send us to a doctor’s office.
Same idea works for stress. Introduced periodically, in a moderate amount, like a regular muscle work out, it helps us to build strength and resilience. But as overloaded and over worked aching muscles, our stress resilience weakens, causing all sorts of dysfunctions, when we are finding ourselves under constant pressure.
As a result, many of us logically conclude: if something is so bad for us, we have to do our best in avoiding it. The problem is that avoiding stress is exhausting and useless work, that can make us even more stressed.
I tell you the story. Centuries ago in the Middle Eats leaved a man, named Nasreddin, who was famous for his wisdom and sense of humor. Many people were traveling from far away the get his advice. One day, very reach man came to Nasreddin and said that he has so much gold and gems, he surrounded by the most beautiful women, he lives in the most incredible castle. But he is not young anymore and feels like his life was to short for him to enjoy his wealth enough. So, he asked if it’s possible to live forever. Nasreddin smiled and said that it’s actually very easy. All you have to do, he said, is to go home and never think about a white monkey. The reach man was very surprised, this is it, just do not think about white monkey! He paid generously to Nasreddin and left. Guess what he was thinking all the way home and every day to the rest of his life? Of course, a white monkey. There is a scientific explanation why our brain wired the way that we focus much harder on something we are trying to avoid, but it is a fact, when we are trying to side-step something, it insistently finds its way back to our thoughts. Anyone who, for example, ones tried to quite smoking, knows exactly what I am talking about. Same with the stress. The more we are trying to evade it, the more we think about it, the more stress we bring on ourselves with no tangible results.
So, we now know that good stress can bring excitement into our lives, improve our cognitive functions and helps us to become more resilient.
How we turn the tables and stop chronic stress from building up and have more of a good stress. We can do it by trick called mindset intervention. Same study, I mentioned before, also concluded that our perception of stress as a dangerous and harmful aggravator plays as important role in stress aftermath, as a biological and emotional changes our body going through during the stressful times. And since we do not have control over bio-chemical reactions inside of our brain, we still have control over our mindset and our perception.
In order to change our mindset, we need to convince ourselves that whatever stressing us day in and day out is not as horrible as we think. For instance: if you have an important appointment with investor or a big client or any other event, that will have significant impact on the future of your business or your life, usually few days or even weeks before are very stressful. We are worried about how we will present ourselves, what the reaction will be, what will go wrong (we have now doubts something will go wrong, we just don’t know what exactly). We can’t sleep, focus, think straight. The important day finally comes, and instead of being enthusiastic we feel exhausted. What if instead of stressing out, we will repeatedly tell ourselves that this person, who we are meeting with, deserves the benefit of the doubt and if he/she agreed to listen to what we have to say, he/she might have already positive impression of our product, services or idea. That if we spent last weeks or even month preparing and going through smallest details, statistically speaking we have much more chances to do it right, than to mess it up. And what if you will be asked a question you don’t have an answer for? Maybe you could ask the people, you are meeting with, what do they think about it, engage them in the conversation, encourage to make suggestions. Use an IKEA effect. Do you know why this furniture brand is so popular? We tend to like something much more, if we put time, energy and effort into it. This cabinet can’t be bad, because I assembled it myself, I put my sweat and tears into this 5 hours process, so everybody better like it!
In other words, we break down the stressful situation into smaller pieces and we try to look at that with a different, more positive point of view. ‘Divide and conquer’ worked not just for Roman emperors, it’s applicable for the 21st century as well. And when we mentally able to take this terrifying mask off, we no longer see the stressor as seemingly undefeatable monster, and as a result, our body stops chemical reactions triggered by stress, which makes it easier for us to calm down. So, by this mindset intervention exercise we launch the chain reaction that transforms bad stress into a good one.
How to apply this exercise in practice? It depend on how you learn any new skill.
For auditory leaners, I suggest talking out loud to themselves in front of the mirror and also record this ‘inner conversation’, and to listen to it again and again, like a mantra, until you will start believing in what you are saying.
For people with vivid imagination I would propose to close their eyes and visualise the stress-factor as an ugly creature. And while you are changing your perception about each small part of this creepy monster, he slowly transforms into something much more good looking or just fades away as a morning fog. Anything that makes you feel good and calm will work.
For to do list fans the best way to practice will be … yes… a list. Write down every negative aspect of a stressor in one column and brighter and more positive side of it in the other. Remember, there are two sides to every coin. The main purpose is to take the dark cloud of negativity away and bring in something more positive, useful or just funny.
At first this mindset intervention exercise will take time, but with more and more practice, it will become your second nature. And it also has two very important pros: it’s free and it’s always available for you to practice, no equipment or assistance needed.
So, please try it out and see where it takes you. Good luck.