How to Turn Stress into Fuel for Growth, Productivity, and Happiness

Photo by Kyle Loftus on Unsplash

Your stomach twists.

Your shoulders tighten.

Relax, you tell yourself.

But your heart rate increases along with the tension.

You know you should manage your stress better. Stress increases your risk of a heart attack or stroke. Not to mention a nasty, slimy head cold.

Relax.

Your breathing gets fast and shallow. Your throat constricts.

You don’t have time for this.

Don’t have time for mantras and deep breathing and self-help.

Don’t have time for sloppiness or distraction.

But in the back of your mind, a voice asks: Is this healthy? Can I sustain this? Should I just give up?

And why wouldn’t you feel that way? Science has been telling us for years about the dangers of stress.

But what if that is only part of the story?

The Surprising Truth About Stress

Research also shows that stress can boost your immune system, sharpen your performance, and encourage you to reach out to others.

Chances are you’ve noticed benefits of stress at one time or another yourself. Have you ever found it easier to focus when you had a deadline?

Thanks, stress.

And although post-traumatic stress gets more headlines, psychologists also study something called post-traumatic growth. Turns out that some people experience lasting benefits from extremely stressful experiences, including:

  • Increased appreciation of life
  • Improved relationships with others
  • New possibilities in life
  • Increased personal strength
  • Spiritual change

You’ve probably experienced at least one of those at some point too. And that’s great news for those of us who have a lot of stress to deal with.

So how do you stop getting so stressed out about stress?

Stop Getting So Stressed Out About Stress

It’s about the mindset.

Visualize your dream vacation.

What did you come up with?

Disneyland?

Backpacking across Europe?

Snorkeling in the tropics?

Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure you didn’t visualize sitting on the floor of a room with plain white walls, staring at the ceiling for two weeks.

Even if you are way overdue for a break, such a total lack of stress would actually become stressful.

Humans thrive on stimulation and challenge. And even those periods when the stress gets too intense for comfort have a purpose. They are often the most meaningful and important gateways in our lives. Those experiences open the way to growth and purpose.

So you can stop being afraid of stress. And science says that once you switch your mindset, your body listens. Your physiological responses to stress become healthier, and you find yourself experiencing more of the positives and less of the negatives associated with stress.

There are all kinds of crazy cool research that says It’s the fight against stress that makes you sick, not the stress itself. You may not need to reduce your stress as much as you need to quit fighting it.

Crazy Cool Research About Stress

Thirty thousand American adults were surveyed about how much stress they had experienced in the past year.

Where would you fall?

They were also asked if they thought stress had a negative impact on their health. Researchers used public health records to track participants for the next eight years and find out who died.

Uh-oh. Worried about the results?

People with high levels of stress were forty-three percent more likely to die.

Not helping your stress level?

But get this — that was only true if they also believed that stress was bad for them. People with high levels of stress who did not think stress was harmful had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study. And that includes those who had experienced little stress.

Whaaat?

To put that in perspective, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, wrote, “182,000 Americans may have died prematurely because they believed that stress was harming their health. . . that would make ‘believing stress is bad for you’ the fifteenth-leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide.”

Scientists are now finding that the fear of stress can change everything from the cocktail of hormones in your body to the way your heart circulates blood.

So what do you do with all that adrenaline? Alchemize it into the positive force it was meant to be.

Instead of reducing stress, your solution may be to experience stress differently.

How to Find the Challenge in Your Stress

On the surface, this one sounds too easy. You’re probably thinking, Oh, I see the challenge all right. A little too well. And that’s the key. The physiological process in your body is different when you perceive a threat versus a challenge.

Threats trigger a fear response. Your blood vessels constrict and inflammation increases. Theoretically, this could help you limit blood loss and heal more quickly following a physical confrontation.

During a challenge, your blood vessels stay relaxed and your body circulates more blood. This gives you more energy. It is also healthier in the long term because high blood pressure and inflammation are linked to diseases.

Challenges also trigger a different balance of hormones. You are more likely to be motivated, confident, and resilient. Threats are more likely to sensitize you to triggers for a fast, potentially-life saving reflex response later — like a soldier with battlefield reflexes.

For people with everyday stress, having more challenge responses than threat responses is healthier. They help you maximize the benefits of stress and minimize the disadvantages.

So how do you do that?

Why You Should Reframe Your Stress

It's funny how much of our stress comes from our thinking rather than our external world. There are people who pay money to bungee jump and leap out of airplanes.

Me?

I’d be more likely to pay money to avoid bungee jumping or leaping out of airplanes.

Some people love to perform. Others do anything possible to avoid public speaking.

Thing is, we all have similar physiological responses to these situations. They trigger adrenaline for everyone. When you feel that fight-or-flight response kick in, how you respond to it determines the physiological process — threat or challenge — that will unfold next.

If you choose fear, your body will move into a threat response. So avoid telling yourself things like, This is terrifying. I can’t do this. Look how my hands are shaking. Everyone can probably hear my heart beating through my chest.

To trigger a challenge-response instead, tell yourself things like, This is exciting! I’m so amped up about doing this. My body is psyched. I’m ready.

The concept is simple but powerful.

When you embrace your stress and trust that you can handle the challenges at hand, something extraordinary happens — you prove yourself right.

Of course, it will be easier to believe all that positive self-talk if you have a plan to back it up.

How to Discover Your Resources for Managing Stress

You are probably better at viewing stress as a challenge in those areas that are within your comfort zone. Good at sports? The physical challenges won’t even need much reframing. Love academics? Then those will come more naturally. The trick is to teach yourself to do the same thing for your tougher challenges.

To do that, you’ve got to move beyond the deer-in-the-headlights response.

You know the feeling. You’ve been blindsided by a situation you don’t feel equipped to handle. You feel anxious — panicked even. Your mind freezes, and you can’t think beyond Oh, crap. . .

This is not the moment to turn on Netflix.

This is the moment to start gathering resources. Don’t dwell too much on the big picture when you are already overwhelmed. Instead, take this baby step. Think of every resource you could potentially draw on to deal with this situation.

Start with your own stress response. Is your heart racing? You have extra energy. Has your breathing gotten faster? You are super motivated.

Move on to list experiences you’ve had, qualities you’ve developed, people you know, places you could go for help.

There is always a longer list than you first believed.

Studies show that telling yourself that you have the ability to handle the situation — even if you haven’t decided which resources to use yet — will help you deal with stress more positively.

The more equipped you realize that you actually are, the more your body will come to view this situation as a challenge instead of a threat. And when you do that, the stress itself becomes one of your greatest assets.

Harness the Energy Behind Stress

The problem with most stress management approaches is that they send the message you are supposed to eliminate stress.

Get real. If it were that easy you would have already done it.

And telling yourself you should be able to get rid of stress that you can’t make you frustrated, anxious, and angry.

More stress.

The better approach is to use your stress. Picture a football team in the locker room before the big game. Is the coach telling them to visualize all their tension floating away on a fluffy white cloud?

Of course not.

He’s channeling their nervous energy into determination. Excitement. Strength. They need their stress.

Your stress can also give you an edge.

If you are restless, use that energy to be productive. If you are anxious, channel excitement. Use the extra energy your body is giving you.

Uncover the Hidden Meaning in Your Stress

Meaning matters.

During times of stress, we tend to focus so much on the how that we forget the why. But without purpose, your motivation fizzles.

You can work harder, move faster, and deal with more adversity when there is a good reason.

The good news is that any time you are stressed, there is already some meaning. You wouldn’t feel stress unless you cared about the situation, right?

Dialing in that meaning will help you handle stress better, according to research.

Some ideas for finding the meaning in your stress:

  • Visualize yourself five years down the road. How do you want to look back on the current situation? What role do you want it to have played in your life? Let that guide your current choices.
  • Pick three words that you want to sum up your response to the current situation. They might be things like courage, determination, love, faithfulness, strength, compassion, integrity, optimism, or something else. Then every night write down something that you did you demonstrate those words. In an extreme situation, there may be days when it takes tremendous strength to get out of bed in the morning. It still counts. Over time you will have a record of an epic journey that you may not have even realized you were making.
  • Ask yourself How can I grow from this? What doorway is being opened for me that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise?
  • Ask yourself How can I use this experience to help someone else?

How to Use Stress to Build a Better Support System

Social support gets a lot of hype. And it’s true — good social support helps you cope better with stressful situations. What you may not realize is that stress also prompts you to build that support system.

Your body releases a whole slew of hormones in response to stress. One of those is oxytocin. Most people associate oxytocin with bonding. Breastfeeding mothers produce extra oxytocin to help them connect with their babies. Your body produces extra oxytocin after sex, and this can help you bond with your partner.

So why oxytocin in times of stress?

It balances out the unhealthy effects of many of stress hormones. It is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and it triggers the calming effects of the parasympathetic nervous system.

Oxytocin also prompts you to seek out social support. Then receiving social support creates even more oxytocin. It’s a cycle that protects you from the negative health effects of other stress hormones.

Research shows you are more vulnerable when you ignore the push to reach out socially. People who have a strong fight-or-flight, or sympathetic nervous system-based, stress response experience more negative health effects from stress. Building on your body’s natural counterpoint to that — the tend and befriend, or parasympathetic stress response, will keep you balanced and healthy.

Other ways you can use social support to deal well with stress:

  • Normalize the experience: Remind yourself that other people go through the same thing. If they can do it, so can you.
  • Succeed vicariously: Inspire yourself with examples of people who have overcome.
  • Keep it positive: Avoid those influences that tell you can’t succeed or that dwell on the negatives
  • Help other people. Research shows this will decrease your vulnerability to the negative effects of stress.

Your New Friendship with Stress

Your stomach twists.

You tell yourself, my body is mobilizing to help me.

Your shoulders tighten.

I have the energy to face this challenge.

Your heart rate increases.

You think about other people who have faced similar challenges successfully. You are not alone.

You know satisfaction comes from doing hard things. You remind yourself of how you want to look back on yourself navigating this challenge. You will show Strength. Courage. Love.

And you get to work.

Adrenaline sharpens your focus.

Stress energizes you.

You are bold. Powerful. Determined. Accomplished.

And in the back of your mind, you whisper thank you.

Thank you to the stress you weren’t sure you wanted. Thank you to your body for creating the energy to carry you through the challenge. Thank you most of all to your courageous heart for turning dross into gold.