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How to make stress work for you instead of against you

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

The chances are, you are currently under a lot of stress or have been under a lot of stress at least once in your life. You likely have to do things that you find stressful from time to time, such as public speaking, completing a complex project under a tight time frame or working with unpleasant colleagues and bosses. Such activities can − depending on your nature − stress you out and we all know that stress can lead to all kinds of health problems, some of them deadly.

Or so we thought. In fact, a growing body of research indicates that stress is not such a bad thing provided we deal with it in the right way. It merely requires a little cognitive reframing, which is not as complex as it sounds. It is simply a matter of learning how to look at situations differently.

Angry Boss

For example, imagine that your boss is always angry with you. He loudly criticises your performance, rolls his eyes when you speak up at meetings and gives you dreadful tasks. You understandably believe that he dislikes you and is disappointed in your performance at work. This causes you to feel stressed at work and super-stressed when you have to interact with your boss. The result is reduced self-esteem, especially at work and health issues such as fatigue, migraines and anxiety, all of which lead to even worse performance on your part and increased criticism from your boss.

Cartoon: angry bossPerhaps you are reluctant to talk to colleagues about this, because you feel it reflects badly on you. But, after one really bad meeting, a friendly colleagues sees you are upset and asks why. Your defenses down, you tell her about your boss's treatment of you. She laughs and says, "don't worry about it, he's like that with everyone. It's not you, it's him!"

You take this advice to heart and begin to notice your colleague is correct. You were so caught up in your own feelings, you failed to notice that your boss criticises nearly everyone. He rolls his eyes whenever anyone speaks up and is quick to belittle all of his direct reports. Indeed, his problem is not really with you or your colleagues, it is within him. Soon, you find that you and your colleagues are laughing about his attitude at lunch.

You also find that you are no longer hurt by his criticism and meetings with him are boring rather than intimidating. In time, you might even start to feel sorry for the guy. He cannot have a very nice life if he is always angry.

Reframing Your Perception

What you have done, of course, is to reframe your perception of the situation from believing that your boss doesn't like you, and allowing that to affect your self-esteem, to pecieving that your boss is a man with a lot of issues, but those issues are not really about you. Once you have made this cognitive reframing, your boss's issues no longer make you feel bad about yourself or your performance.

Of course, it is not nice working under a boss with anger issues, but understanding that those issues are not your fault and accepting that understanding internally reduces stress and self-esteem issues.

Dreaded Speech

Now, let us imagine you dread public speaking (apparently most people do, but a few crazy people like me actually enjoy it. Telephoning someone I do not know, on the other hand, unsettles me!) and you've recently been promoted to vice president. One of your new obligations is to make a presentation at the big annual meeting. The thought of having to do this stresses you out in a big way. You even start having nightmares about all of the things that might go wrong.

But the feelings of stress − like increased heart rate, faster breathing and more energy − are very similar to feelings of excitement, aren't they? So, reframe your feelings from being about stress and anxiety to being about excitement at the opportunity to present yourself, your team and your work to your colleagues from around the world. Now, the speech is a marvellous opportunity and one well worth getting excited about.

Caveperson Stress

In evolutionary terms, stress was a good thing. Prehistoric humans, of course, did not have bosses, did not have to make presentations to large audiences and did not have to complete complex projects under absurdly tight deadlines. They had to worry about really basic stuff, like not being eaten, not being attacked by a neighbouring tribe and coping when food was scarce. In those simpler times, stress was a good thing. The increased heart rate pumped more oxygen into the blood, energising the body. Faster breathing brought more oxygen into the system. The flow of adrenalin provided immediately available energy. All of this was great for fleeing saber tooth tigers and other human-eating beasts; ambushing big, dangerous prey; and fighting off human attackers. Without stress, we humans would have gone extinct a millennia ago.

The problem is that today, things that cause stress tend to require intellectual action rather than physical action. Nevertheless, when you feel stress your body is still programmed to prime itself for physical action such as fleeing or fighting. As a result, in these modern times, stress tends to build up a lot of bad energy inside you and that can make you feel anxious, unsettled and unhappy.

It need not be that way. You can and should learn to tap into your primitive stress response mechanism to make stress work for you rather than against you. Breath in deeply. Feel your heart pumping extra energy into your system. Appreciate and exploit the energy surge you feel. Tap into it to deal with the stress inducing situation like a hero and feel good about it. If the energy surge is overwhelming, get up and go for a walk. When I am energised, I find walking is the best way to channel the energy into my thinking.

Stress Can Be Good for You

In one of the better TED talks, Kelly McGonigal explains recent research into stress in which 30,000 of people were monitored over a period of years. During that time, they were asked about how stressed they were and how they felt about the stress. What was found was that those people who felt they were under a lot of stress, and believed that stress was a bad thing, had a 48% increased chance of dying within a year, as compared to the other groups. However, those people who were under a lot of stress but did not see stress as a bad thing were the ones least likely to die in the next year. Indeed, they fared even better than people who reported being under little stress.

In other words, if you have the right attitude, stress is actually good for you, which should not be surprising. After all, evolution has provided humans with stress reaction for a reason. Most of us have simply forgotten the reason.

As Ms McGonigal says, "make stress your friend."

Further reading

The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal PhD

 

 

 

 

 

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