THE SKY IS BLUE Chris Hemsworth is smokin’ hot and stress is bad for you – it’s just a fact of life, right? Well, what if, contrary to everything we’ve been led to believe, stress is actually a positive force that can make our lives happier? “Recent science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger and more successful,” says Kelly McGonigal, psychologist and author of The Upside of Stress (Ebury, $35). “It helps you grow. Embracing stress can make you feel empowered in the face of challenges and lead you to find meaning in suffering.” Sounds pretty crazy, but when you think about it, stress is simply what arises when something you care about is at stake (so, everything from the frustration you feel when you’re stuck in a traffic jam to the anxiety you experience when a loved one is ill). Since it’s unavoidable, McGonigal reasons, we need to get better at harnessing its power for good.
The most important technique in managing stress, says McGonigal, is recognising that it’s a resource to help you. “You don’t stress about things you don’t care about, and you can t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress,” she explains. “People with a positive view of stress are less depressed and more satisfied with their lives than those who believe stress is harmful. They have more energy and fewer health problems. They’re happier and more productive at work, and they’re less overwhelmed by their problems and more confident about their ability to cope.”
The Upside of Stress
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The problem with holding a negative view of stress is that it can make you act in unhelpful ways. “People who endorse a stress-is-harmful mindset are more likely to say they cope with stress by trying to distract themselves from the cause instead ofdealing with it,” says McGonigal. Conversely, people who believe stress can be helpful are primed to attempt to positively deal with the source oftheir problems.
Behavioural psychologist Kate Joseph agrees. “Stress in itself is not inherently bad. What causes it to have a negative impact on your wellbeing is your relationship with it,” she says. “Often, people’s coping mechanisms are unhelpful or even destructive. A glass of wine or a cigarette might initially calm you down and help you forget about pressures, but both can spiral into addictions and neither address the root of the problem.” Your mission is to consciously switch your perception of stress when it invades. “Instead of viewing stress as a fixed and toxic state, use these feelings as a starting point or form of energy,” McGonigal says.
If you’re going to make stress work for you, you need to know more about it. You’ve probably already heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response, but it’s not the body’s only reaction to stress. “There are several potential stress responses: the ‘tend and befriend’ response increases courage, motivates care-giving and strengthens social relationships, while a ‘challenge’ response increases selfconfidence, motivates action and helps you learn from experience,” McGonigal adds.
Knowing this means you can choose to respond to stress in different ways. “Next time you’re feeling fraught, ask yourself what you want it to help you achieve: do you need to fight, escape, engage, connect, find meaning or grow? Even if your stress response is pushing you in a certain direction, focusing on how you want to respond can shift your biology to support you.”
Used in the right way, stress can even enhance your sports performance. “The stress response before a big race or match enables athletes to focus on their goals and gives them the courage needed to achieve them,” McGonigal explains.
Likewise, you can use it to give you a lift ifyou’re facing an intimidating to-do list. When you’re swamped, try doing something for someone else, McGonigal tips. “Your brain’s reward system will get a boost, and being generous can have big effects on how you experience stress,” she says.
When the stress you’re under eases up, you can still use it to your advantage. The trick here is to recognise how strong you’ve been, how appreciative you are of how it’s resolved, and the social connections you’ve made since the experience, says McGonigal.