I’m going to share 5 ways to transform our stress into “good” stress, because science shows us that stress can actually be good for us.
Wait – what? Stress can actually be good for you? I know, it sounds impossible to believe, especially based on what we’ve all been told. But there is a good amount of science showing that it’s not really the stress that’s so bad, but the belief that stress is bad that does the real damage. That, with the right skills, we can transform stress into a way that not only does less damage – but actually helps us grow and become even more resilient.
I don’t know about you, but I like this perspective much better than the popular consensus out there in the wellness world, which is essentially that stress is bad and will ruin us. It’s simply not true; we can get good at stress. So, how can we do this?
Here are the 5 ways to transform your stress into “good” stress:
1. Tap into connection. When experiencing stress, take a moment to think of others who are going through similar situations. You don’t even have to know these people; just knowing that there are in fact many people in this world going through tough experiences is enough to bring to mind.
Doing this activity – picturing others who are experiencing similar feelings, worries, and situations – brings a sense of connection and humanity to our experiences. That this experience of suffering, pain, or stress is part of the human experience. This first step alone begins to take the sting out of the unpleasantness of a situation, making us feel less alone and more plugged in to the intricate web in which we are all connected.
While our daughter was in treatment, I often found myself thinking of all the other families going through what we were going through, having heard the news that their child has cancer, helping their child through difficult situations and emotions, treatments and side effects. Even though I couldn’t physically connect with them, bringing them to mind helped ground me in a difficult situation.
2. Embrace the stress and anxiety. It’s normal and common to want to run from stress. But we know now that running from or avoiding stress comes at a cost to our minds and bodies. We tend to turn toward other coping mechanisms, or avoidant behaviors or “escapes;” some of which can be pretty self-destructive or at the very least, huge time sucks. So instead of avoiding the stress or anxiety, it’s much more helpful and useful to embrace it, to lean into it.
Studies show that trying to avoid stress actually makes things worse for us over time, often throwing us into a vicious cycle that psychologists call “stress generation.” What essentially happens is that, in trying to avoid stress, we wind up creating more sources of stress. What’s worse, in doing so, we deplete our body’s resources that should be supporting us.
So, how do we begin to embrace stress? First, know that these feelings are your body’s way of telling you that this situation means something to you. This experience is important, otherwise, you wouldn’t be feeling so stressed or anxious about it, right? This matters. So allow yourself to connect first with the reasons why this situation is important to you.
This plants the seeds for more resilience, self-confidence, and courage, which are natural antidotes to the effects of stress and anxiety. It connects us all to the fact that stress is a normal part of life, simply part of the human experience.
It’s the beginning of slowly shifting our viewpoint to one that views stress as an opportunity to grow.
3. Turn the stress into a challenge. You are probably already familiar with the feelings of stress and anxiety: racing heart, sweating palms, tension in your body, a general sense of worry or unease. And, you’re also probably familiar with the thoughts that tend to follow these sensations. These are thoughts that say, “Oh no, this is bad, I need this feeling to stop.” And we do what we can to “combat” stress, or make it go away.
But research shows that our physiology is not in fact a problem; it’s the mindset we use toward it that creates setbacks for ourselves. So the suggestion here is to stop trying to make the sensations and stress go away.
Instead, focus on what you will do with this surge of energy, this added strength your body is giving you. Your reaction is actually telling you that you care about this, so lean into these sensations. What you’re essentially doing here is seeing the stress, or the stressful situation, as a challenge rather than a threat or something that “shouldn’t be happening.” In short, we don’t “resist” the situation; we move with it, harnessing its energy for our greatest good.
We sometimes tend to think that dropping resistance means we give up, or we lose our edge. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. If you’ve ever been stressed or anxious, which I’m guessing is all of us, you can likely feel that your body expends a ton of energy trying to manage it, stuff it down, or push it away. Imagine how much energy your body is using up trying to do all of this? And, imagine how much energetic real estate that would be freed up for you, if you simply stopped wrestling with the anxiety or stress?
Realizing that the stress isn’t harmful and that you don’t need to think about trying to get rid of it is incredibly freeing, and now you have that excess energy unblocked, so it can flow and be used more productively in your life.
So, how do we do this, in real time?
You can start by telling yourself, when you have anxious sensations in your body, that you’re excited. Because research shows that the feelings of anxiety – adrenaline pumping, heart racing, palms sweating – are actually the same feelings one gets when they do something exhilarating and fun, like bungee jumping or something similar. But it’s the way our brain perceives these feelings that determine whether or not we are in a flow state or a state of resistance.
So rule #1, start telling yourself that you’re excited. Your body is giving you energy to rise to a challenge. In other words, your anxiety and stress is a resource, and this situation is a challenge, not a threat. You’re here to grow through this, or, as my new favorite phrase I heard recently puts it: “Grow through what you go through.”
4. Explore your mindset. Words have power. More importantly, the words we choose to speak to ourselves have a huge influence on how we perceive ourselves, our day, our situations, which lends into our outer experiences. If you are constantly saying things like “I’m so stressed out,” “this situation is going to kill me,” or “I’m going to get an ulcer from this,” remember that your body is listening. Every cell in your body is listening to what you say.
What’s more, our bodies can’t differentiate between a real experience vs. what we are feeling in our bodies because of what our minds are telling us; it simply reacts to what thoughts we have. And, even if you have those thoughts that I mentioned above, we give power and literal voice to them when we speak them out loud. So, you can acknowledge how you feel, but the trick is to simply become aware of the impulsive language we speak, recognizing that it does in fact impact how our bodies react and what we experience.
The good news is that there’s not much to do here; just becoming curious and aware of this pattern or these habits are enough to make the shift, and pretty soon you will naturally move away from this type of self-talk. So, in other words, watch your language, OK? 😉
5. Make a choice. Next, recognize that no matter what your circumstance, you can continue to make choices. This connects us to action, which is key in getting us out of stuckness and stagnation.
Ask yourself, what can I do with this excess energy? How can I use this resource I’ve been given? What actions can I take to help this situation? It may be an action to drive you forward in something that is important to you or your life’s work, or simply driving you to reach out to a friend and feel a sense of community, or even to ask for help.
When my daughter was going through the heaviest part of her treatment I made it a point to remind myself, in what felt like a choice-less situation, that I did in fact have choices: I could talk to her doctors. I could ask questions. I could take a walk. I could take 10 minutes each day to sit in silence. I could do a yin yoga before bed at night. I could update family and friends via our Caringbridge app, which always felt better for me to get my thoughts out, and always brought connection. All of this puts you in a position of empowerment, getting you “out of your own way” so to speak. It gives you courage to grow from stress.
Connection, Acceptance, Empowerment, Challenge, and a reminder that, even in tough situations, we have Choices. This is how we can transform stress to help us grow.
And remember: “Grow through what you go through.”