We are all pretty familiar with stress and it’s downsides.
We know it can affect our health and well-being, and – as I often discuss – our brains.
But let’s face it: a lot of stress is unavoidable. Often what causes our stress is beyond our control, which ironically makes it all the more stressful!
So what if there’s another way to think about it?
What if stress could actually a good thing?
Most of us know when we’re feeling stress, particularly acute stress. We might notice the face feels flushed, the heart beat quickens, the breath stops or gets shallow, and muscles tighten.
Even when we don’t notice the stress signals in the body, the brain is nonetheless receiving and assessing them.
The brain will link to prior experience and assess what the signals mean so it can guide us accordingly.
While we can’t control the physiological signals that come with stress, we can decide what they mean and how to relate to them.
In other words, we can assess our perspective on stress.
Typically, we think of stress as a negative experience – to be avoided, or as a sign that something is wrong.
Since the brain’s job is to keep us safe, if we believe something is wrong, the brain will want to fix that. But when the cause of the stress is beyond our control, that can simply heighten our stress response.
So we’ve got the situation causing us stress, and now the stress itself is causing stress!
Research shows that if we can shift our perspective on the stress, we can help our cognitive capacities and performance, reduce procrastination, and respond to challenges in a better way.
Researchers call this process a “stress reappraisal,” where rather than seeing stress as bad, we see it as a tool to overcome a challenge.
The stress response is an adaptive one with a purpose of protecting and supporting us in taking action in the face of a threat or challenge. So what if we see the cause of our stress as a challenge instead of a threat, and our stress as helping us in the face of that challenge?
The research shows that if we believe the stress gives us sufficient capacity to handle the challenge facing us, then the body will respond as if the stress is a challenge, not a threat.
We know this because people in the study who practiced stress reappraisal showed increases in testosterone, a hormone supporting performance, and decreases in cortisol, a hormone supporting the threat response.
In addition, the stress reappraisal was associated with positive reach goals, as opposed to ones based on avoiding negative outcomes, and this is predictive of greater performance and well-being.
What will you make of stress?
So even when we can’t control a cause of our stress, we can control our perspective on it. If we can shift to seeing our stress as helping us with a challenge, we can actually lower our cortisol levels, help our performance, and our well-being.
What will you decide to think of your stress the next time you notice it?
Your answer might affect much more than your stress!
Found this helpful? Share with a friend or colleague who’s been facing a stressful challenge!
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