The term stress was first used by Dr. Hans Seyle in the 1930s to describe the physiological responses to situations that people judged to be ‘stress-full.’ Toward the end of his career, Seyle was asked at a medical conference about how to eliminate stress.
‘If anyone tells you they can eliminate your stress, run,’ he replied. ‘What they are really saying is that they want to kill you. The absence of stress is not healthy, it’s death.’
So if you’re feeling a little stressed right now, don’t wish all your stress away. Rather take a minute to rethink how you’re thinking about what you’re finding ‘stressful.
Reassess perceived ‘threats’
To help you think smarter about whatever you have going on start by asking yourself whether you’re overestimating the challenges coming your way or under-estimating your ability to handle them. Or perhaps
both. Psychologists have found that our stress levels are directly linked to the extent to which we assess our resources are being threatened or depleted or will become insufficient to meet a threat—real or perceived. In other words, it’s not that any particular person, event or circumstance is in itself ‘stressful’, but rather the assessment we make of our ability to cope with that event.
For instance, if you’re feeling stressed about returning to the workplace, consider that maybe you’re overestimating how difficult it will be or underestimating how quickly you’ll adapt to it. Trusting that you have all the resources within you to adapt to going back to the office (just as you adapted transitioning to working from home) will spare you a lot of stress (releasing all that energy for managing it better).
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It’s how we process or interpret a ‘stressor’ that gives rise to feelings of anxiety or fear, which, in turn, produces a physiological change in our body (our heart beats faster, as our breathing grows more shallow and palms sweat.) This, in turn, is what we label as stress.
It’s how we assess situations that trigger stress responses, not the situations themselves.
For instance, in the middle of 2020 I took several long-haul international flights. My primary emotions were gratitude and excitement to see my children who were living across the world. Yet leading up to each flight, numerous people told me how stressed they were at the very thought of getting on a plane. Much less flying 24 hours. My point: flying in a pandemic is not stressful. It’s the assessment people feel about flying in a pandemic that can create stress. So too, having a job that places many demands on you isn’t, by default, stressful. It’s how you feel about your ability to meet those demands. It explains why what may be terrifying for one is exhilarating for another.
When horticulturalists are preparing plants for life outside the hothouse, they gradually expose them to greater variations of temperature in order to toughen them up for the variability they will be exposed to in the natural environment. Without being ‘stressed’ a little, they will be unable to thrive in the ‘real world.’
While we humans are more complex creatures than plants, the same principle applies. Only through being exposed to situations that put some strain on you can you build your capacity for greater stressors. I like to frame it as growing ‘muscles for life.’ Conversely, without a period of strain, you actually lose strength, endurance and natural resilience. Indeed research shows that a certain amount of stress is actually good for you. Harnessed well, it sharpens your focus, enabling you to perform at your peak – delivering that sales pitch or preparing for that interview – and grow into your potential.
Harnessing stress requires balancing engagement with recovery
Turning stress into an opportunity for expanding your capacity for life requires finding your optimal stress point. That is, intentionally moving between an engaged state, where you are focused, creative and productive and a recovery state where you can process the challenges in your environment, renew and reset yourself – mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. As research has found, continually moving back and forth between engagement and recovery, you can build those ‘muscles’ and raise your performance. On the flipside, if you don’t give yourself recovery time, you put yourself at risk of chronic burn out.
Perhaps you’ve had times in life when you’ve felt really stressed out. Maybe you’re in the midst of one now. If so, you’re not alone. But consider that maybe you sometimes unintentionally magnify your stress levels by the language you’re using.
Avoid stress inducing language
When you talk about someone or something making you stressed, you’re really saying that you are responding to that person or situation in a stressful way. This may sound a little confronting. However consider that while your thoughts are real that doesn’t mean they are true.
A client recently told me how their job is ‘super stressful’ and how their boss is ‘a complete nightmare’ who keeps ‘stressful them out’ and ‘giving them stress.’ I encouraged them to simply ‘play with’ alternative descriptors.
My job is demanding but every day I’m learning to manage it better.
My boss is under a lot of pressure which is giving me amazing opportunities to manage upward.
I’m in an interesting/challenging/exciting position which is enabling me to really grow into my potential.
The more stressed you feel, the less smart you think
The irony is that by talking about how stressed you are just magnifies your experience of stress and undermines how effectively you respond to the situation at hand. Neuro-imaging studies show that stress disengages the ‘thinking’ part of the brain. In short: the more stressed you feel, the less smart you think. Talking up how stressful your life is can send you into a vicious self-reinforcing stress spiral. All the while, it places a cumulative toll on your body, productivity, relationships and mental and emotional capacity to respond effectively.
The good news is that being ‘stressed out’ by life isn’t a fait accompli. Our brains innate neural plasticity equip us with the ability to short circuit our stress response and expand our bandwidth for responding more constructively, calmly and courageously to ‘stress triggers’ in our environment (otherwise called ‘stressors.’)
Embrace stress as necessary to thrive
So whatever stress you’re feeling right now, start by noticing the story you’re spinning – in your own head or verbally to others – about your situation. Are you talking up the stressors in ways that keep you focused on what you don’t want? If so, reframe how you’re viewing your situation, adopting language that:
Reflects belief in your ability to manage whatever you’re facing (even if you have doubts, speak as though you felt as confident as you want to be).
Frames the stressor as a vital stimulus for growth and necessary for you to thrive
I’m in an interesting situation that’s teaching me a lot and building my ability for more inspiring challenges. I’ve got everything it takes to figure this out one day at a time.
My son 19 year old son Ben told me that after the last 12 months he’s far more confident in his ability to deal with life’s challenges moving forward. In other words: the stress of graduating high school online and starting college in a pandemic have built his ‘muscles for life’ in ways that will serve him long after this pandemic is over.
The last 12 months have held many ‘stressors’. But they’ve also taught us that while life can change on a dime, we have the inbuilt capacity to adapt quickly and rise to challenges we might never have imagined, much less prepared for. More so, that in the midst of what might be called ‘stressful situations’ we can discover strengths and hone talents that may otherwise have lain dormant.
By expecting that you’ll sometimes have to deal with new situations that make you feel uncomfortable (at first), you’ll set yourself up to respond to them more constructively and gain more from the experience.
If nothing else, remember that you’ve got a 100% success rate at surviving testing times before. Chances are you’d not be half the person you are today had you not experienced them. So embrace the challenges of this moment and remember, stress is not your enemy. It’s stressful thinking you need to watch out for.