Stressed out? Change your mindset

A while back, I wrote a small piece on stress management as part of a larger resource. I started off by writing all the usual stuff about how chronic stress kills. But as I was writing, I was thinking to myself how utterly unhelpful it is to tell people to just avoid stress. It’s totally impractical! And if everyone is scared of being stressed, surely that just makes them more stressed out by each stressful situation they inevitably find themselves in….

I held down the backspace button on what I had written and opened a bunch of tabs instead. There had to be some better advice out there.

It didn’t take long to find it. Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal gave a TED talk in 2013 called ‘How to make stress your friend’ and it really struck a chord with me. McGonigal didn’t deny that people who experience a lot of stress are more likely to die, but she did point out some fascinating research that showed that this connection between stress and death doesn’t exist for all people.

A University of Wisconsin-Madison study looked at 29,000 people over eight years and researchers found that believing stress is bad for you, is bad for you. People who thought stress negatively impacted their health died at a higher rate than those who believed stress didn’t affect their health. And this association held for those experiencing very little stress, a moderate amount of stress, and a lot of stress. So even if you were under a lot of stress, if you believed it wasn’t bad for you, it wasn’t as bad for you.

How does that even work, though? A small Harvard study may give us some answers here. Participants in this study who were told to view their stress response as helpful had a different physical response to stress than those who viewed it as harmful. Their blood vessels didn’t constrict as much, their heart pumped more efficiently. Their mindset changed their physical response to stress.

And if they can do it, so can we. We aren’t going to be able to avoid stress forever. Meeting deadlines, juggling work and children, finances, relationships – stress is unavoidable. And yeah, it’s not great for our health. But how we think about it makes a difference. So here are three deceptively simple steps to turn stress to your advantage.

  1. Welcome stress. Your heart is pounding, you’re sweating like a pig, your mouth is as dry as the Sahara desert… But that heart is racing to give you extra strength, you’re breathing harder to give you more energy. Your body is doing everything it needs to do to prepare you to deal effectively with your stress. You may be sweating like a pig but you’re MEANT to be sweating like a pig. Props to your body!
  2. Make a plan and seek support. We can’t control everything. Focus only on the things we can control and let the rest go. And of the stuff we can control? Ask for help with it. Stress encourages us to reach out to others and this social side of being human is, surprise surprise, good for us. Reaching out to others releases the hormone oxytocin. This hormone is known as the cuddle-hormone and McGonigal rightly points out in her TED talk that oxytocin is as much a part of the stress response as cortisol and adrenaline. Only it’s job is different. It helps us to respond better and recover faster from stress. We shouldn’t feel ashamed to ask for help when we’re stressed, we should embrace it. Share how you’re feeling, cross unessential tasks off your To Do list, ask for help at work or around the house. Be human.
  3. Make time to take time out. What does time out look like for you? A walk? Gardening? A cup of tea and a good book? Chilling with your friends? Whatever your stress-relieving activities are, they keep you sane. Make time for them. Make time for you.

I was meant to write and publish this blog post last week but you know what? I was feeling rather stressed out. Instead of stressing myself further by putting pressure on myself to stick to a weekly deadline that only I was holding myself to, I decided to follow my own advice. I thanked my body for preparing me adequately to get through my stressful time. I told my partner how I was feeling and we agreed to have leftovers for dinner instead of me cooking. Then I got in bed and instead of writing a blog post I watched a 90s action movie because come on, Keanu Reeves is the man.

And you know what? I woke up energized, refreshed and ready to take on a stressful day.

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