Ways to Make Stress Work for You February 13, 2018 12:16
Yes, there's such a thing as good stress—and with practice and awareness, you can find the positive energy in any stressful situation.
Stress has gotten a very bad rap. Yes, it’s true that too much cortisol, nature’s stress hormone, will make you fat, sleepless, and forgetful. And overwhelming stress can give you a heart attack (along with these other heart attack triggers). However, not all stress is created equal. Negative stress, or distress, is what wears down your immunity and poses a health risk. It can also impair your performance and productivity. If your mind has ever gone blank from test anxiety, or you’ve choked in a tennis match, you’ve been sabotaged by distress.
On the other hand, positive stress. Good stress, or eustress, can actually feel invigorating and make you stronger and more productive. The good news is that you have a lot of control over whether a particular stressor is positive or negative. Often, the difference between bad and good stress is simply a matter of how you perceive a situation. And if you perceive it positively, stress can give you the energy and alertness to perform at a high level. Many of the people I work with thrive on stress. They look forward to challenging projects, deadlines, and risk. They don’t mind feeling a sense of urgency. In fact, they welcome it.
Consider one of the most universally stressful experiences — public speaking. Many people, even some with loads of experience at it, find their heart racing and their palms sweating as they anticipate getting up in front of an audience. However, even the most reluctant public speaker can learn how to turn the experience into a source of positive stress with a few specific strategies.
Whether or not something is stressful to you depends on how you perceive it. Two people can experience the same event and have very different reactions to it, depending on their attitude and how they interpret the event. You can develop a “stress-hardy” attitude by learning how to perceive, and respond to, challenges constructively.
Taking charge of how you react to stress does more than make you more comfortable. Occasional sweaty palms or butterflies in your stomach won't put you in the hospital. But if you have prolonged symptoms of stress, you are flirting with health risks. For example, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, frequent insomnia, and frequent colds and infections are all consequences of chronic stress. If you’re self-medicating your stress with drugs or excessive food or alcohol, you’re putting yourself even more at risk.
Don’t be afraid of fear
Welcome it. If you're in a challenging situation and you feel your heart beating faster and your palms getting a little sweaty, just acknowledge this to yourself and reassure yourself that it’s normal and you’ll be fine. In fact, it's more than fine: Having some adrenaline flowing through your body can actually help you perform better, with more energy and emotional vitality. Accept your feelings and accept yourself. You’ll feel more in control and your anxiety will likely diminish.
Maintain a positive expectation
If you’re giving a presentation or any other performance, imagine it positively. Enact it in your mind, picturing yourself doing a great job. Imagine your audience being receptive and appreciative. Repeat often. Your positive expectancy helps you feel confident and energized, helping to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Enact the performance in real life, too, by practicing and making sure you have done your homework and are fully prepared. Knowing that you're prepared for the task will boost your confidence. Positive expectancy is based on a realistic appraisal of your ability, not magic.
Do it with thoughts like: "I can handle this—it’s no big deal," "I've dealt with harder things than this," "What can I learn from this?" and "How can I grow from this?" Again, be sure to prepare and practice to the extent that it's possible, since this will reinforce your positive thoughts.
The key to managing stress is finding out what makes you tip from coping to feeling overwhelmed.