Hidden Benefits of Stress

Recently, I devoured the book, The Upside of Stress by Kelly Mcgonigal. 

I highly recommend this book. It’s SO GOOD.

The research in the book is based on new scientific research about stress and it’s a complete game changer. 

Here’s why…

The Hidden Benefits Of Stress

Take a look at how stress might not be a problem after all and how you can look at stress as a good thing..

We’re Told Stress Is A Huge Problem

You’ve probably heard so many times that stress is bad for you. But that just isn’t true. 

This actually originally comes from science that was used on rats. (Yes, rats.)

Scientist Hans Selye made a lot of discoveries during his research on stress back in the 1930s. His science was based on torturing rats. He put them in tiny containers and solitary confinement. He would blast them with noise and force them to swim, shocked them, drugged them, severed their spinal cords, alongside other terrible things. His research showed the results of this torture reduced muscle tone, caused failure of the rats’ immune systems, and even death for many of the rats. 

This research is what our knowledge of stress was based on until recently. 

This may be equivalent to someone who has experienced a great amount of trauma, such as surviving a kidnapping, terrorist attack, or something similar. 

This isn’t the sort of stress we’re used to in our modern daily lives. You usually aren’t being tortured and feeling stressed about it. (It’s weird writing this because it seems so obvious and yet I never thought about the different types of stress and the different stress responses until I read this book.)

Instead, in your day to day life, you’re dealing with different types of stress, such as: 

  • Your job
  • The political climate
  • Pregnancy
  • Finances 
  • Tests
  • Your kids
  • Your aging parents
  • Various work tasks

This is modern-day stress, and it isn’t really comparable to the sort of stress that the rats were under.

The day to day stress is so different. It’s not survival stress. It’s not harming us the way we think it is.

In fact, this type of stress isn’t harmful at all… unless you think it is…

The Truth: Stress Isn’t A Problem Unless You Think It Is

The biggest takeaway I’ve learned from the newest research on stress is that modern-day stress isn’t a problem unless you think it is.

According to Kelly Mcgonigal, the belief that stress is bad for you, is the 15th leading cause of death in the United States. This is above cancer, HIV/AIDs, and homicide. 

If you choose not to believe that stress is harmful to you or tha stress affects you, then you’ll have a completely different perspective on it.

This is HUGE.

You’ll have a completely different reaction and experience to levels of stress, causing it to serve you to perform better and be happier (yes, be happier!).

People who believe stress isn’t a problem actually live longer than those who have no stress at all.

This is because people who have healthy stress in their lives have more purpose, more drive, more goals. In short, they have something to live for. They’re “in the arena” as the saying goes. They don’t let stress affect their mental health.

Then there’s this new study from the book worth mentioning, too…

In a more recent experiment on stress, Karen Parker of Stanford University did a study on monkeys that tested their stress. She separated baby monkeys from their mothers for 1 hour every day. She predicted that this would make them more dysfunctional and emotionally unstable. Instead, the exact opposite was true. The monkeys were more curious, more resilient, and even had more courage and self control all the way into their adulthood. They also had larger prefrontal cortices. 

This study absolutely blew my mind. 

A lot of things about myself made sense. I now understand where a lot of my own resilience, curiosity, and courage came from. My dad was an alcoholic, he lost his dental practice, he was in and out of jail for DUIs, and my parents were divorced when I was 12. I experienced a lot of challenges that I had to overcome. But because of these experiences during my childhood, I feel like I’ve become equipped with resilience and courage that has helped me when I’ve experienced new things in my life. 

For example, during Covid19, I have a very optimistic attitude. I feel capable, ready for anything, and accepting of what is. It’s my resilience and adaptability that I’m seeing. This comes from an underlying belief that I don’t think life is supposed to be easy. I don’t think it’s supposed to be the same. I think change is constant. And I’m ready for it. I think this because I saw it throughout my childhood.

So, how can you go from trying to avoid stress and believing that it’s bad, to having an entirely new perspective on it? The very first step is to redefine stress. 

Redefining Stress

It may sound like we’re talking about stress as if it’s a given, but I want to define stress right here. 

Stress is an emotion and a sensation. 

I define stress as an emotion in your body caused by the belief that something outside of you is important and needs your focused attention. 

The important thing to note is that it’s not the circumstances around us causing the stress, it’s our beliefs about those things. 

Some of the characteristics of stress that you’ll notice when your sympathetic nervous system kicks in are:

  • Tightness in your body
  • Chest pounding
  • Your heart speeding up
  • Increased alertness and focus
  • Brain and body are activated and sharp

This may not sound good when you read it, but actually none of these things are a problem. 

The opposite is true. When your body is alert and focused like this, you can actually use this to your advantage. It can be a great thing to have those stress hormones on your side working for you! 

Sports are a great example of this. 

We Put Ourselves Under Stress All The Time And Call It Sports

We put our bodies under a lot of stress intentionally when we do any kind of sports or exercise. 

When we do sports we tear muscles and this makes them stronger. We put our bodies under pressure and it’s helping them to grow and get better. 

I love using this example because it really shows our mindset when it comes to different kinds of stress. 

When we do sports, we don’t see stress as a problem, instead, it’s a good thing! 

Think of this example next time you experience stress, it can change how you manage it.

How To Manage Your Stress

In the book, The Upside Of Stress Mcgonigal talks about two types of stress responses:

  • The fight or flight response
  • The challenge response

One of these responses is helpful, the other is actually causing more harm than good…

The Fight Or Flight Response

The first response is the fight or flight response.

This is the “threat” response.

You get very afraid and you think that you either need to run or fight whatever you’re facing. 

This is the response that is NOT useful.

It causes more harm than good.

The Challenge Response

The second response, known as the challenge response, is the one that helps you focus and strategize.

The challenge response is a mindset. It’s a response to stress without fear, worry, or resistance. You accept the stress as if you’re in the game (to use the sports analogy from above). No amount of stress affects your negatively.

This response allows you to problem solve and excel at whatever you’re doing.

This is the response that can give your life more meaning and allow you to increase your focus on what is important to you.

With the challenge response, you use “performance stress” to your advantage to overcome obstacles. 

So, I’m curious… which response do you have? Are you in a fight or flight response typically? Or, do you welcome stress and use it for you? The difference is everything.

Five Steps To Use The Challenge Response For Your Stress

Now that you know the difference between extreme stress and modern-day stress and the types of responses that will serve you or not, I want to give you a five-step process to help you manage your stress.

Here is my five step process to manage your stress...

1. Name It As The Emotion Of Stress

Next time you’re experiencing stress, take authority over it. Giving that stress a label can be so important. Say to yourself, “this is stress, it’s an emotion in my body.” 

Labeling stress can help you know what to do with it. 

2. Describe The Stress In Your Body

Next, define for yourself what that stress in your body actually is. Ask yourself questions like: 

  • What does the stress feel like?
  • What temperature is it at?
  • Where is the stress located?

These could be things like feeling hot, feeling your heart racing, your jaw is clenched, your body is tight. 

Don’t ask yourself WHY you’re feeling the stress. Instead, what does the emotion actually feel like?

When you do this, you’re making friends with your body. You’re taking a step away from your emotions. This can help you to see that those emotions aren’t YOU. Instead, they are just an experience inside your body. Emotions vary widely, so be in tune with what exact emotion you’re feeling.

3. Ask Yourself What You’re Stressed About

Determine what the thought is that you’re thinking that caused you to feel stress. What amount of stress are you feeling?

Are you thinking, “I’ve got too much to do.” Or maybe you’re thinking, “this project is hard and I’ve got so much to worry about right now.”

Weed out the root cause of your stress. 

For example, when I prepared for the Design Your Dream Life Live Event, Covid19 started happening and I changed it over to a virtual event. 

I only had a month to change everything and to redo the entire event and I experienced stress. Instead of allowing this stress to overtake me, I embraced it and decided that it was performance stress. It could help me to focus on this new challenge and problem solve. 

It was happening for me, not to me. 

This experience was the training for the big event. The month leading up to the event, I was all in with the changes I made to make it the best virtual event that I could. 

I was stressed, but it wasn’t a problem for me. 

4. Tell A Supportive Story About Your Stress 

Nothing is wrong when you’re experiencing stress. To help your mind understand this, create a story about your stress and how it’s there to help you and how you can use it to serve you. 

For example, this is a story about stress:

”Today, I’m going to do some stress. It’s okay. Stress is helping me. I’m going to get really good at stress.”

When you’re resisting stress, you’re just making it worse. You may feel like you’ve made it disappear, but it’s going to come back. 

You’re arguing with your own body. You’re only hurting yourself when you do this. It makes total sense why believing stress is bad for you is the 15th leading cause of death. 

Instead, when you think stress is there to help you, you live longer. This is a fascinating fact about your mindset on stress and it actually makes total sense. We dive deep into mindset in Grow You and really break down how our mindset can change every outcome we have.

This is also important for how you view other people’s stress. 

5. Stop Thinking Something Is Wrong With Others When They’re Stressed

When you see someone else, like your husband or child, who is experiencing stress you may want to help them out and end their stress. This isn’t the best thing for them. 

You can end up mirroring their emotions and that can cause even more harm for them. 

Instead, think of it the same way you think of your own stress. It’s just performance stress and it’s going to help them overcome and be stronger. 

When you change your mindset about stress for yourself and others it can have life changing results. 

The Result Of Changing Your Mind About Stress

When you change your mindset about stress and believe that it’s happening for your benefit, the results can be incredible. 

You can have more fulfillment and passion in your life when you believe that it’s just performance stress and it’s only there to help you out.

Think about when people retire. They are excited and there’s so much anticipation. 

Instead, new retirees are met with boredom and a loss of purpose. The job that was causing them stress was doing so because it was something that they cared about and it was something that brought them purpose. Now it’s gone.

This is the same for you. When you don’t have stress, you may be missing something that is giving you purpose. 

That’s why people who believe stress is good for them are actually better off than those who don’t have any stress at all. 

You have more resilience, courage, and are actually happier in your life. You’re focused on something that is giving you meaning.

A Final Note

If you change your mindset about stress and believe that it’s actually there to benefit you, you can have a more purposeful life. 

Don’t avoid your stress. Don’t run away from it. 

Instead, accept your stress and use it to your advantage. It’s performance stress and it’s there to help you.