“You need to lower your stress levels.” If you’ve visited a doctor maybe ever in your adult life, you’ve probably heard this mantra. The body’s responses to stress aren’t pretty: your heart rate rises along with your blood pressure. You start to sweat. Your anxiety goes through the roof. Your breathing quickens. Your vision tunnels. If you experience chronic stress, you might start seeing skin problems like rashes or acne, hair loss or pigment change, or you might start experiencing insomnia because your worries keep you up at night.
While all of these responses to stress are bad things that will, when added together, take years off your life, a recent study has found something very interesting. It isn’t really the stress that is killing you. It is the way you perceive that stress.
The study found that, while high amounts of stress did increase the risk of premature death in those who experienced it, it did so only in the participants who perceived stress as a bad thing. In fact, according to the study’s results, “The amount of stress and the perception that stress affects health interacted such that those who reported a lot of stress and that stress impacted their health a lot had a 43% increased risk of premature death.” This means that, if you stress about being stressed, you’re over 40% more likely to die prematurely due to stress’s adverse effects.
If you don’t let the stress get the better of you, however, you do not experience the same level of adverse effects. Therefore, it is still important to reduce stress in your life, but it seems equally as important to rethink the stress you do have. Here are five ways to turn the bad stress in your life into good stress.
Don’t Give Stress the Power
We get it. You’re stressed out. You’re so stressed out that you walk around the office or your home practically pulling your hair out. Almost every other phrase out of your mouth is, “I’m so stressed out!” We know you’re stressed. You know you’re stressed. What good does it do to keep telling everyone this fact? The more you talk about your stress, the more stressed out you’re going to become. Eventually, talking about your stress level is going to lead you to becoming stressed about your stress level. Instead of spending so much time giving stress that much power over your life, find something to divert your attention or, if that fails, vow to not talk about your stress at all. Simply doing this can help keep your stress under wraps.
Take Steps to Dismantle the Stressor
You have a big project due at work, or you have this huge bill you’ve been putting off dealing with. Every time you check your to do list or you see that bill lying on your kitchen counter waiting to be paid, your heart starts beating faster and your breath quickens. Instead of shoving your to do list or that bill under a pile of papers so it is out of sight — which might be a temporary fix, but definitely isn’t a long-term one — try to tackle it in smaller, more manageable pieces. Break up the project into steps you can accomplish quickly, or start paying that bill in small pieces. That way, you can re-cast the stressor as something you’re taking steps to deal with rather than something you don’t even know how to start.
Choose Your Battles
You can’t really do anything about a cranky coworker, a toddler who has a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store, or that jerk who just cut you off in the middle of the highway, so why get all worked up about it? If there is not something you can do to dissolve a stressful situation, don’t sweat it. It’s not your fault, and it’s not worth freaking out about. Instead, focus on the things you can control, and make those things work in your favor. My favorite activity for when I’m stuck in traffic, for example, is to listen to funny books on tape. Eventually, I get to the point where I’m actually disappointed to be home because I want to finish the book I’m listening to!
Eat Foods to Reduce Stress
There are many foods that help reduce stress, and no, I’m not talking about pizza and macaroni and cheese. While those might be comfort foods and make you feel better in the short term, there are a plethora of healthy, stress-busting foods you can eat instead that will help for much longer and won’t make you pack on the pounds — something else to stress about! These stress-busing foods include green vegetables like broccoli and spinach, avocados, apricots, almonds, oranges and sweet potatoes just to name a few. All of these foods contain vital nutrients like magnesium, potassium and vitamins that help keep you calm.
Recognize Stress for What it Is
One of the things that the participants in the study had in common is that they all saw stress as a good thing. Believe it or not, it really is. In fact, stress “heightens our senses and steels our nerves and increases our attention to detail. We need it.” That tunnel vision helps you focus on your goal. Your quickened breathing and heart beat is pushing more oxygen and blood to your brain and muscles. Your anxiety is making sure you stay focused and cautious. Your sweat is designed to alert those around you to impending danger.
Our brains often interpret these responses as negative when, in fact, they are positive. Seeing them as such can actually change your response to stress, so the next time you start feeling the effects of stress, remind yourself of what is really going on. It could actually save your life.
Photo Credit: Christopher Meredith