How Stress Can Actually Make Your Life Better
These days, ask almost anyone, “How are you?” and their default reply is: “Ugh, stressed!” or “I’m so busy!”
It seems we’re a stressed out nation, and research definitely indicates that stress levels are on the rise. Data analyzed at Carnegie Mellon reveals that people experienced a 10-30% increase in stress over the last 30 years.
Of course, doctors remind us often about the negative effects of extreme stress, but, if we’re honest—in our culture, we wear “stress” like badge of honor.
We know we need more balance, but we also live in a culture that expects stress to accompany “worthy” pursuits or activities. And therefore, it’s only once we hit total stress overwhelm that we begin looking for ways to check out, to reduce our stress, to make it go away. At that point, we just reach for anything that takes the edge off—alcohol, relaxation techniques, calming exercises, even nutritional supplements.
But numbing out or trying to make stress entirely go away isn’t ideal for us either. Why? Because stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Of course avoiding chronic levels of overwhelming stress is important. But some stress in your life is actually a GOOD thing.
Let’s be real, stress in life isn’t going away anytime soon, so the only thing you can do is change how you handle it and what you do with it. So a better goal is learning to harness stress adaptively. It’s time to start managing stress in a way that serves you!
Here are six amazing benefits of mastering the art of being positively stressed:
1. It shows that you care …. a lot!
We only worry and stress about things we actually care about. As such, stress functions as a positive reminder about the things we deem important in life. Stress at work means we want to do a good job. Stress about our kids, spouses or significant others means keeping those relationships healthy is a priority. Stress doesn’t mean everything is falling apart (even if it feels that way), more often it simply means that parts of our life need our attention.
2. It gives your brain a boost
Stress increases focus, allowing us to zero in on what needs to happen next. Scientists at the University of California Berkeley recently documented that stress strengthens neural connectivity and memory functioning. So, that pressure to hit that deadline by 5 PM might be exactly the brain boost you need to crack down and finally get that important task done.
3. It kickstarts motivation
Finishing a task is challenging, but even harder is summoning the motivation to start. Stress fuels our minds and bodies, giving us the critical kickstart we need to initiate action. As stress mounts, so does our desire to discharge it with action (a.k.a. I’ll feel better after I just get this DONE!).
4. It elevates your performance
In his book Flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes a peak emotional experience of being so wrapped up in an activity that you forget everything else around you. You happily become one with the task. But to reach this “flow” state, you need a measure of consistent taxing effort (or, striving with some pressure). When that “good stress” is present, time seems to evaporate and people describe feeling their best, even their happiest. (In fact Czikszentmihalyi claims that achieving such a state is the secret to happiness.)
5. It makes you more resilient
Like with working muscles during exercise, stressing our mental and emotional resources makes us stronger and, ultimately, more emotionally and mentally resilient—provided we rest and recover. Just like your body needs a rest day, your mind does, too. With that balance in place however, moderate amounts of stress actually boost immune system response, making your more physically resilient, too.
6. It helps you bond with others
Stress stimulates oxytocin—the cuddle hormone—which promotes social behavior and connection. Telling your partner about your worries helps the two of you bond and connect. Their response to your worry hopefully includes support and additional resources important to meeting the demands of your stress (whether that’s help with the kids, a backrub, or just someone to listen).
In the end, how you think about stress is the most important part of “managing” it.
In a large-scale study, researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that how we perceive stress is more predictive of health than the duration or severity of the actual stress we experience. Participants who did not consider stress harmful were more protected from mortality (even with higher stress amounts) than those people who experienced lower amounts, or no stress, but who perceived stress as dangerous.
So, no matter how much stress you feel, one of the most powerful things you can do to mitigate its harmful effects is to think about it positively. Recognize and embrace the benefits of stress as the first step toward harnessing its impact for good.