What do you think about stress?  If I asked you to pick between two statements, would you say you think stress is: (A) harmful and should be avoided; or (B) helpful and should be embraced?  When I ask this question in my workshops, the overwhelming response is “A.”  While chronic stress is not good for your health and well-being, there is more to the stress story than what we see in the news headlines.

As it turns out, how you think about stress matters.  A series of studies helped me rethink my own position about stress, because the findings were so revealing.  In one study, researchers surveyed almost 29,000 adults and asked them two questions:

  1. How much stress did you experience in the last year?
  2. Do you believe that stress is harmful to your health?

Eight years later, the researchers checked to see whether stress impacted rates of mortality for these participants.  What they found was that the participants with high levels of stress were more likely to die, BUT only if they also believed that stress was harmful to their health.  The people with high levels of reported stress who did not believe that stress was harmful had the lowest risk of death of any group in the study.  The researchers concluded that it wasn’t stress alone that was impacting mortality, but the combination of stress along with the belief that stress is harmful to your health.

Dr. Alia Crum and her colleagues have also made important findings about stress mindsets.  Her research team found that you exhibit a different physiological response when you view stress as helpful (“stress helps”) rather than as a threat (“stress harms”).  When you view stress with a stress helps mindset, you get additional energy, your heart rate rises, and your adrenaline goes up, but it differs in a few important ways from the traditional fight or flight response:  a. you feel focused instead of fearful; b. you release a different ratio of stress hormones; and c. you are more easily able to access your mental and physical resources.  The result is enhanced concentration, better performance, and more confidence.   In addition, her team discovered that people who can think about stress more like a challenge and less like a threat reported less depression and anxiety and higher levels of energy, work performance, and life satisfaction.

These questions can help you create a “stress helps” response to stress:

  1. Where do I have control/influence/leverage in the situation?
  2. What is a specific action step I can take?
  3. What are my strengths?
  4. What resources do I have?
  5. What allows me to know that I can handle this?

Conversely, having a stress harms mindset can keep you stuck thinking you must be the only one feeling a certain way, and that can make your stress worse.  One of the most unexpected consequences of your stress response is its subtle encouragement to seek out others.  It can be tempting to think, “I can handle this all by myself” in a stressful situation, but in reality, your stress response is actually pushing you to become more prosocial.  This “tend-and-befriend” style of responding to stress has been found to increase courage, motivates caregiving, and strengthens social relationships.

These questions can help you connect to others when you feel stressed:

  1. What support do I need?
  2. Who can I support?
  3. Who else is struggling?
  4. Who could (or does) support me?
  5. What relationships could I strengthen as a result of going through this challenge?

It’s also helpful to talk about these different types of stress responses, especially with your kids.  My seven-year-old, Lucy, was recently picked to be “author of the week” at school.  She had to create a “book” about her interests, family vacations, what she wants to be when she grows up, and more.  What she didn’t realize, though, was that she then had to stand up in front of her class, read her book pages, and answer questions from her classmates.  The thought of having to speak in front of her class brought her to tears.  So, I asked her if she was feeling butterflies in her tummy, and she said yes.  I told her the goal was to get her butterflies to fly in formation (the stress helps response) instead of all over the place (the stress harms response).  We talked about some ways to do that the morning of her presentation, and when I picked her up from school she said, “That wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be!  My butterflies were flying in formation!”  She also admitted to asking her friend if she got nervous when she had to present.  Her friend said, “Of course I did,” and that gave Lucy huge comfort.

What these and other studies demonstrate is that stress can help you in many ways.  Stress gives you the energy you need to rise to a challenge, stress gives you the courage to connect to others, and stress helps you learn and grow.  Stress is also part of a meaningful life.  The next time you feel stressed about something, try to get curious about how stress is showing up to help you.

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