Stress: Why it Can Actually Help You, NOT Hurt You



Last year we bought a speedboat and in the spirit of fun, we had a family competition to come up with the best name for it. My oldest son Lachlan won the prize with Usain Boat. Pretty clever huh? While taking Usain Boat out for a spin last weekend it occurred to me that the biggest obstacle a boat has to overcome is the water against its propeller. Yet if it weren’t for the water, the boat wouldn’t move at all. The same law is true for all of us: our ‘obstacles’ – which have the potential to cause us stress (i.e. “stressors”) – are actually a condition for our success. Without them, we could never learn and grow and accomplish and enjoy the feeling of success and fulfilment we all crave in life.

Of course most of us don’t like obstacles. In fact, we tend to resist them, curse them, and often get ‘stressed out’ about them. None of which does much good because in the end, life is one long stream of ‘problems,’ ‘obstacles’ and potential reasons to get stressed. Our success in life therefore isn’t reliant on their absence, but on how well we handle them. Learning to how to respond well to potential ‘stressors’ – large and small alike – without stressing yourself out, is therefore a pretty vital life skill. Here are a few principles to help you build it.

Don’t Stress About Stress

Research on stress has found that our attitude toward stress has a huge impact on our health. That is, people who think of stress as something bad and to be avoided have a 40% higher risk of dying after a period of crisis than those who see stress as a natural response to our challenges that enables us to respond to them with greater focus, resilience and energy. Getting stressed about stress can literally be a killer.

Don’t Talk Up Your Stress

Stress is not our enemy. It’s stressing thinking we have to be most careful of. Talking about how stressed you are all the time, how stressful your life is, your boss is, your job is etc. only amplifies your stress levels and reduces how well you handle the very things causing you stress. It’s a vicious cycle. Avoid getting stuck in it.

Don’t Live Like Everything’s an Emergency

Too many people walk around in a permanent state of alarm, addicted to the rush of cortisol and adrenalin our bodies produce when we convince ourselves that every situation is an emergency. But here’s the deal – if you treat every situation as a crisis, you can’t respond effectively when you eventually do face one. So save your stress for those times of genuine crisis when you really need to jump into action. Being an adrenaline junkie can feel good for a while, but it’s never sustainable.

Reach Out, Get Support

Stress also releases the hormone oxytocin into our system. Dubbed the ‘love drug’ by psychologists, it drives us to connect with those around us more closely. Oxytocin is nature’s way of building your innate resilience in times of crisis, because the more support you have around you means you’ll be well-equipped to deal with the challenges at hand. So even if you would prefer to battle it out on your own, don’t. A burden shared, is a burden halved. Don’t let false pride or timidity or not wanting to seem needy stop you from reaching out.

Embrace the Upside of Stress

The opposite of stress is not health and happiness. It’s death. Indeed every world class athlete or musician or successful person will tell you that they are at their best when they feel a certain level of stress (aka pressure.) Of course, as I’ve discovered myself, sometimes in our quest to take on a lot of things, the needle on our stress barometer can move from the healthy range to the red zone. But unless we run the risk of occasionally feeling too much stress, we can’t grow our capacity to handle it better or know how much we’re capable of doing. Embracing a certain amount of stress as par the course for a life well lived, literally changes your body’s physiological response to it.

Invest Time to De-Stress

Too much stress – not well managed – is the main culprit for all disease and visits to the doctors’ office. So it should go without saying that too much stress (that leaves us distressed) over a prolonged period of time is not a good thing. So thriving in life is actually about an ongoing balancing act: taking on challenges that may stretch you and at times stress you but also giving yourself regular ‘time out’ to recharge and de-stress when the stress-barometer has gone into the red-zone. Sitting at home on a couch watching sitcoms can be a good thing if you have a lot on your plate that’s weighing on you. Staying there permanently can actually take years off your life and decrease your standard of living.

Trust Yourself to Handle Stressful Situations

Ultimately, stress is caused by our assessment of our ability and resources to cope with some threat, real or perceived. It’s why people stress not just about losing their job, but about getting promoted into their boss’s job. Both threaten our sense of self, and can make us anxious about how we’ll cope. But research also shows that most people underestimate their ability to handle potentially challenging situations. For this reason, cultivating a stronger trust in your own ability to rise to life’s challenges can have a profound impact on your stress levels. So whatever your current situation, I invite you to trust yourself that you have all the inner resources you need to handle whatever life throws at you, one day (sometimes one hour and occasionally one minute) at a time.

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