Stress is the modern-day plague. Anxious, overworked, and overwhelmed are the words describing many American's lives. Stress has been associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer. Stress can even shrink the brain according to new studies. In the workplace, stress-related health problems amount to more than $180 billion in healthcare expenses each year.
It's pretty clear that stress is the enemy. But could stress also be an ally? Psychologist Kelly McGonigal has led the charge with her research undermining the conventional view that stress is bad. Rather than be at the mercy of your stress, their are powerful benefits when you choose to master your stress. McGonigal says that people are able to "transform fear into courage, isolation into connection, and suffering into meaning."
Here are seven steps to change your relationship with stress and make stress your ally:
1. Acknowledge your stress
Stress is a natural human response designed to help us. That understanding is crucial for taking advantage of your stress. With the onset of stress comes a host of physical responses: clammy hands, sweatiness, increased heart-rate, mild anxiety. Acknowledging that feeling as a natural response -- a healthy signal -- without attaching any negative emotion or interpretation to it is the key starting point.
Negative responses to stress are often visceral. To acknowledge stress is to give yourself a psychological break from that negative thought pattern.
2. Detach from consequences
Many symptoms of stress manifest prematurely and unreasonably when you allow your mind to draw conclusions. Psychologists call this "catastrophic thinking" -- thinking you're about to be thrown in jail when a police car is driving behind you. Don't give your stress any more "breathing room." Refrain from drawing conclusions beyond your immediate context.
3. Shift your fundamental belief
McGonigal's research revealed that having high levels of stress only increased people's risk of mortality when it was combined with the belief that stress was damaging to their health. Those who didn't believe it was detrimental did not experience subsequent physiological maladies. Neurosurgeon Dr. John Gorecki affirms the new studies in neuroplasticity, and says that shifts in belief alter your brain's neural pathways, and subsequently your physiology.
4. Inject and reflect on meaning
A study that highlighted the benefits of stress by Yale University and Psychologist Shawn Achor showed that people who carry stress are also more likely to say their lives are meaningful. This is because stress is typically attached to a significant life experience. Emphasizing the meaning of a life situation also gives the stress meaning.
5. Journal your victories
It is helpful to keep a journal of past experiences you've endured and obstacles you have overcome. McGonigal says, "You can deal with stressful life experiences with strength from past ones." The fuller your memory of previous successes, the stronger you'll be in handling future stresses. Record these victories and reference them the next time you encounter stressful situations.
6. See progress, not perfection
Stress from perfectionism is crippling, and will stunt your productivity. While having high standards for excellence is admirable, it's easy to end up with impossible ideals. Adopt a mindset of growth and progress. Embrace the process of iteration, it will free you from the paralysis and stress of perfectionism.
7. Prime yourself for success
A Rochester University study took a group of people with a history of social anxiety, and set them up to give a speech in front of some scowling judges. One group however, was primed to reframe their physical stress responses (increased breathing and heart rate) as the body's way of "preparing for battle." They subsequently performed much better than those who were not primed.
Lead author of the study, professor Jeremy Jamieson noted, "Our experience of acute or short-term stress is shaped by how we interpret physical cues." Your physiology is at the mercy of your psychology.
The key is to start with success in mind; mentally prime yourself for any upcoming stressful situations. Have an expectation that your physical responses will lead to peak performance.
For more of Thai's articles on self-mastery and living a meaningful life, visit The Utopian Life.