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The Upside of Stress

How many times lately have you said or heard someone else say, “I’m so stressed out!” No doubt we are in an extremely challenging period of time as an entire culture. Throw in your personal stuff and it can quickly become a zoo with lots of animals.

It’s almost a mantra on how damaging stress can be to our health. From paying the bills to sitting in traffic to working with constant job challenges and handling what can seem like endless responsibilities, the list of things that can stress us out is endless.

What most of us don’t realize is that stress is natural. Some form of stress (whether physical or emotional) is happening to us every second of the day from the moment of birth until the moment of death. Every bodily movement is a form of stress on your body. But researchers are starting to realize how beneficial stress can actually be to us.

In The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal’s book, she tells us that the impact stress has on our bodies and minds is mediated by our perception of stress. In other words, if we view stress as a positive thing, we can actually improve from it. One study found those who experienced high stress levels while viewing stress as beneficial had the highest life expectancy—not just higher than those who viewed stress as damaging, but higher than those who reported low stress!

You can face stress and transform it into true strength. Since stress is a fixed and natural part of our lives, instead of trying to fight it or get rid of it, we need to make stress work for us by learning how to manage it better. These suggestions are in no particular order but are all valuable.

Reframe the stress. The old cliché “always look on the bright side” is actually good and scientific advice. In a study at Yale University people who viewed old age in a positive light went on to live an average of 7.6 years longer. Another Harvard study found that repeating positive mantras and mottos turned feeling into productive energy. Public speakers reported more effective and well-received performances when they reframed their stressful symptoms as “I am excited.” This is not about living in denial; it is about seeing both sides of stress you can’t avoid and consciously choosing the positive one.

Refuse to live in the world of what if. When we're stressed, we live in the world of what if. What if this happens? What if I can't? What if I make a fool of myself? Most of these thoughts never happen, and they only get in your way. Start living in the land of the real. So what if something doesn't go quite right? You've just learned something new, and there is always value in that. Quit fearing risk.

Learn to love the stress. In order to turn stress into productive energy you need to learn to appreciate it for what it really is—an opportunity. Most people are so fixed on avoiding stress that when they experience it in any shape or form it can overwhelm them. But the sooner you accept stress, the sooner you are likely to develop new strategies for dealing with whatever is stressing you out. When you learn to see stress as normal, you will improve your confidence to deal with life.

Talk to close friends and loved ones and other positive people. Talking to other people is a positive response to stress that can help you build resilience. Medical sources tell us doing so releases the age-fighting hormone oxytocin and allows us to better connect with others. By relating to people through stress you’re able to feel more empathy toward one another and develop more trust, both vital in a meaningful life. The brain will also release dopamine, which will encourage you even more and help you handle the stress. Whenever you can, spend more time with people who will have a positive influence. This doesn't necessarily mean people who don't get as stressed as you; someone who is going through the same emotions as you could be a partner in becoming more productive with your stress management.

Have a higher purpose. You need to commit to some cause or idea greater than yourself. It gives you meaning and helps you to feel positive about your life and at the same time think about yourself less. You have a consciousness that your life matters. In retrospect you will find that you are living a life that is leaving a positive legacy, and that relieves stress.

Learn to let go. Feeling out of control causes stress. The more we fight to control a situation the more stressed it makes us. Accept that it's not possible to control every situation in life (and that’s not satisfying anyway), but very few people take a breath and let it go. Be present and mindful. Stress is usually related to our past and future: worrying about what we've done and what we need to do. Take a second to appreciate the moment you are in right now. The more often you can live in the present, the less stressed you're going to be.

Focus on what you want. Whatever you focus on and put more energy into, you're going to get more of in your life. Focus on being stressed and your return will really disappoint you. Try focusing on what you want, and you'll naturally gravitate in that direction. Write down your targets right now and make them your focus.

Be grateful. Lack of gratitude adds to stress. Work at being grateful for what you have, rather than worrying about what you don't have. Start right now. Think of three things for which you are grateful and do it again tomorrow. The next day do it again and again… You can even feel grateful for your feelings of stress because without them, feeling relaxed wouldn't be as satisfying.

Know you can handle anything. Being stressed is a mindset. That means you have a choice. When you possess and reinforce the knowledge that you can handle anything that comes your way, you'll feel more confident to deal with any situation and go after whatever it is you want. That means you have chosen to become resilient.

Resilience is an individual’s ability to adapt well and recover quickly after enduring stressful, life-changing situations, including adversity, trauma, or tragedy. Resilience is one of the core characteristics of a truly emotionally and spiritually healthy individual. People who have a resilient disposition are better able to maintain poise and a healthy level of physical and psychological wellness in the face of challenges. Individuals who are less resilient are more likely to dwell on problems, feel overwhelmed, use unhealthy coping tactics to handle stress, and develop anxiety and depression.

When you choose to handle stress and become resilient, you will address problems rather than avoid them, you will develop a positive and optimistic outlook, and a flexible and adaptive disposition. You will live on the upside of stress.

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