How I learned to stop worrying and love the stress
I can’t walk downtown without passing a hole in the wall that’s being converted into a yoga studio.
Every time I visit the app store on my phone, yet another new meditation app is vying for a featured spot.
Everywhere you look, the world seems to be telling you how important it is to de-stress.
It’s not hard to understand why this is happening. We’re now capable of being on the grid and online in even the most intimate settings.
We can no longer leave it at the office — stress is a part of our everyday lives.
And here is what I have to say about that:
I welcome stress.
You might be thinking that a guy like me — one who likes to dispel productivity hacks left and right — must have finally lost his marbles with all this talk about welcoming stress.
The truth is, stress is a reality in modern life.
As a founder who has spent over 12 years growing JotForm to almost 4 million users, I can’t deny that stress is indeed something I deal with daily.
But how can we take advantage of an inescapable fact of life and control it to work for us instead of the other way around?
Here’s we go.
(Some) stress is actually good for you
According to McGill University physician and scientist Hans Selye, not all stress is detrimental.
In fact, some stress can actually be good for you — as long as you have the right response.
Positive stress, or “eustress,” is felt when you recognize a stressful situation as an opportunity that will result in a good outcome. A eustress response motivates you to overcome a challenge or accomplish a task.
“In the end, eustress can lead you to feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment, well-being, and wholeness.”
Negative stress, or “distress,” is when you perceive a stressor as a threat that is sure to result in a negative outcome. Distress can lead to fear, anxiety, and despair.
“[Distress] can result in chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and physical illnesses.”
Your perception of stress matters.
If positive stress isn’t already your default reaction and you’d like it to be, here are some mindset practices to might help you train your brain to have a positive reaction in the face of stressful situations:
- Invest in developing a default belief system that is positive, hopeful, and expects the best outcome
- Learn to build a growth mindset that can help you perceive challenges as learning opportunities
- Practice mindfulness
Of course, I have to stress (pun intended!) that we remember the adage “Everything in moderation” when it comes to stress.
Negative or positive, high levels of stress, especially over a long period of time, have been proven to be unhealthy.
I like Psychology Today’s comparison of stress to a vaccine.
Just like the tiny amount of disease in a vaccination, exposure to some stress is likely to make you more resilient and teach you how to respond successfully to future stressors.
“People with a history of some lifetime adversity reported better mental health and well-being outcomes than not only people with a high history of adversity but also than people with no history of adversity.” — Whatever does not kill us: cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience.
But too much stress? It can go beyond just unhealthy and harmful to downright deadly.
Changing your perception of stress can literally save your life
Perhaps the most important distinction of positive stress is just being able to deal with it at all.
When you experience negative stress, feelings of fear and dread often linger. And when your body stays on high alert like that for long stretches of time, illnesses like anxiety and depression are more likely to develop.
According to health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, your perception of stress doesn’t just affect your health — it can have a very real impact on your lifespan.
In a 2013 TED Talk, McGonigal explains the findings from a University of Wisconsin-Madison study that followed nearly 29,000 participants over eight years to understand the importance of how we think about stress.
People who reported high levels of stress and also believed that stress had a major negative impact on their health had a 43 percent increased risk of death.
Those who reported high stress but didn’t correlate it to negative health effects were among the least likely to die in the whole study.
Aside from that astounding link between stress perception and longevity in humans, McGonigal also explained that a correlation had been established between moderate stress and improved neural function, learning, and helpful hormone responses in rats.
How to control stress instead of letting it control you
“Stress is an inevitable part of work and life, but the effect of stress upon us is far from inevitable … Stress can be good or bad depending on how you use it.”
Shawn Achor, a positive psychology expert and the founder of Good Think, Inc., and Justin Menkes, the author of Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others, understand that we face a world full of change, uncertainty, and pressure that often causes stress.
But just because stress is inevitable doesn’t mean a negative reaction has to be.
Here are five habits that help me ditch the negative mindset and take control of stress instead of letting it control me:
1. Reframe stress as an indicator that you care
Racing heart. Tense shoulders. Fear. Panic.
Stop right there.
When I start feeling the physical effects of stress setting in, I try to be mindful that it’s not because something is going wrong with my brain or my body.
Instead, I reframe these feelings as my body telling me that I care about something. Your perception of stress matters.
Whether it’s the second before launching a new JotForm feature we’ve been working on for an entire year or stepping onto a stage to deliver a speech in front of way too many people — I actually welcome stress indicators as they help keep my senses sharp for the activity at hand.
2. Take action to prevent paralyzing fear
Negative stress triggers your body’s “fight or flight” response whereas positive stress spurs you to start imagining creative scenarios and alternative solutions.
The first is a paralyzing response; the second a response that propels you to take action.
Whenever stress over a big decision threatens to stop me in my tracks, I find that keeping up momentum — no matter how slight at times — keeps negative feelings from becoming an automatic response and allows me to keep making progress toward my goals.
3. Focus on what you can change; forget what you can’t
Spending any of your precious mental energy on things that are out of your control is a complete waste.
However, in the midst of a stressful moment, it’s not always easy to hone in on what you should be focusing on.
What I recommend doing is just creating a simple list. One column is things you can change. This column you focus on. The other column is things you can’t change. These you ignore.
I can’t force people to like every single one of JotForm’s features nor can I predict when new competitors will enter the market.
What I can do is make sure we stay laser-focused on building the best product we can base on the awesome user feedback we are fortunate enough to get.
That right there is a much better use of my mental energy.
4. Surround yourself with positive people
I believe culture is hugely important to the way a company and its workers react to stressful situations.
At JotForm, we’ve done our best to build a team we love by seeking out hard-working, upbeat people who gel with our current staff.
In such a cohesive, positive environment — negative personalities tend to weed themselves out. And that’s the natural way we like it.
And by having such a positive network to fall back on, even in the most stressful situations it’s hard to mope around for too long before the positive stress reaction takes over and we all start working together to find ways to deal with the issue and move on.
As I recently wrote in The Power of Doing Nothing at All:
We’ve grown to subconsciously measure a person’s worth based off how many hours they work, how much is on their plate and put simply — whether or not they are running around like a chicken with their head cut off.
Unfortunately, the around-the-clock culture in which most of us live often values being busy and talking about how stressed we are instead of actually doing something about it.
Stress is simply your body’s reaction to an outside force.
One that, when managed correctly, might even make your physical, mental, and emotional state more healthy.