When you hear the word “stress” you can almost feel it – that sensation of being overwhelmed, of being unsure of what your next step should be, of frustration. But not all stress is bad. In fact, in the right doses it can help us achieve success. The key is to be able to identify our stress and manage it in a healthy way. (Are you stressed? See the stress symptoms checklist link at end of article.)
Stress is your natural reaction to threatening or demanding situations. It can propel us to action or render us helpless. It can even affect how we make our decisions. Often it leaves us feeling out of control. But that is just it, it is a feeling, not a fact. If we can regain control over our thoughts, we can channel our stress into a positive outcome.
First, we need to understand that as sophisticated as we have become, our animal instincts still drive us. When we are faced with a critical or difficult challenge, our fight-or-flight response kicks into gear. Our nervous systems pump stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, into our bloodstream. Our hearts pump faster, our muscles tense, our blood pressure rises and our breathing speeds up. Good stress will ready our body and mind to meet the challenge before us. Bad stress may overwhelm us, perhaps leaving us feeling dizzy or incapacitated.
And not only can stress help or hinder our emotional and physical ability to react, researchers have found that it also effects how we make decisions. According to Mara Mather of the University of Southern California, stress makes people focus on the way things could go right. “This is sort of not what people would think right off the bat,” Mather says. “Stress is usually associated with negative experiences, so you’d think maybe I’m going to be more focused on the negative outcomes.” What research has found, however, is that when people are put under stress they start paying more attention to positive information and discounting negative information. (Association for Psychological Science 2012, February 28)
As you can imagine, this shift in attention can work for or against you. It can increase risky behavior. You may leap forward without thinking through all of the ramifications. Or it may empower you to take the necessary risks to achieve something great.
Once we understand it is natural for us all to have an involuntary reaction to a stressful event, and that it can impact if and how we deal with the challenges set before us, we can be better prepared to recognize our stress and use it to our advantage.
As soon as we feel the signs of stress coming upon us, we need to stop and take a moment to breathe. Rather than letting ourselves go into auto pilot, we need to take control. The same mechanism that turns the stress response on can also turn it off – it’s called the relaxation response. This tells our mind and body that the danger has passed. Some have found meditation techniques can help them achieve this. What is wonderful about meditation is that even the attempt to enter a meditative state, whether you are a master or a novice, will have an immediate impact on your stress level – because you are stopping whatever else you were doing, you are resting, you are breathing deeply, you are slowing down. This will give you the space you need to calm your nerves, to collect your thoughts, and to see a clear path through the stress-inducing situation.
It is often said that the best defense is a good offense. By adopting an ongoing stress management program, including relaxation techniques that work for you, you will not only be able to give yourself instant relief from stress symptoms when they are triggered, you will also increase your overall sense of wellness and balance. And then when those stress triggers pop up, and you know they will, you will start to find that you are not reacting as quickly to them. You will still be prompted to action, but without the unhealthy panic and fear that clouds your judgment or shuts you down.
Have you made bad decisions or been immobilized by stress? What can you do to slow down and take control? Or how have you used feelings of stress to motivate you to do something you wanted or needed to do? Please share!