Sometimes, stress can seem like a full-time job. Many of us try to avoid it or, failing that, manage or mitigate it. But Kelly McGonigal, a lecturer at Stanford University and author of The Upside of Stress, makes the case for embracing the stress in your life.
“We have this story about stress that says when stress is present, there’s something wrong with me or something wrong with my life,” she says. But the reality is that there’s no stress-free version of your life available to you—it’s always going to be there.
Often, the reason we have stress in our lives is because we’re leading rich lives and something we care about is at stake, she says. Constantly avoiding or reducing stress could mean not striving for certain goals or taking risks that could lead to great rewards, such as a new job or relationship.
Instead, McGonigal advocates changing our attitudes about stress and embracing it. That’s easier said than done, but following several steps can help.
Noticing and accepting that stress is a part of what it means to be human and to have a meaningful life is the first step in turning around negative attitudes toward it. “Sometimes, when you’re feeling stressed out, you literally have to say to yourself, ‘I’m stressed out right now because I care about my job,’ or, ‘This is stressful because I’m a parent and parenting is stressful,’” McGonigal says.
Stress is often a reaction that’s trying to tell you something, says Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C.: “Look for the part of the stress or anxiety response tricking you into thinking you can’t handle it. That part is the part that drives you to avoid doing what you need to do.”
When you start looking at why you’re stressed, McGonigal says, you either find meaning or have an opportunity to dissolve it. If your stress level is rising because you’re in the 10-item checkout line and the person in front of you has 15 items, ask yourself why that matters. If you can realize that it doesn’t matter, it makes it easier to let go of stressors that aren’t important. But when the answer is something you care about—such as when you’re anxious about your health or job—the realization allows you to connect with that value and put the stress in perspective, she says.
McGonigal explains that when you can identify that stress is connected to something you value, it changes the way your body responds to it. How you respond to stress can not only have an impact on your health, including your immune system, but it’s also more likely to motivate you to engage with the stress in a way that is productive, McGonigal says.
The people who do best in stressful situations aren’t the ones who seem deliriously happy all the time. In fact, quite the opposite—being able to see the darker side of stress and what you need to learn from the stressor is essential to making it work for you, McGonigal says. That may mean feeling anger, recognizing injustice, or admitting mistakes. Those actions are all necessary for using the stressful situation or state as “a catalyst for deepening relationships with colleagues or family members, for strengthening their priorities,” she says.
When you realize the stressor is there and it’s real, you have options in how you’re going to deal with it, says Paul Coleman, PsyD, a Wappingers Falls, New York, psychologist and author of Finding Peace When Your Heart’s in Pieces. He calls these options the “four F’s”:
- Fight: Anger or blame are typically the drivers here.
- Flee: This is where we shut down or pretend the stress isn’t there.
- Fold: In this option, we surrender or become helpless.
- Face: This option has us facing our fears and dealing with the stressor head on.
The key is to find the best way to deal with the stress at the time versus falling into patterns and coping mechanisms in a knee-jerk way, he says.
Dealing with stress is difficult, and those who are better at it have a safe place to be open about what’s bothering them, McGonigal says. Confiding in a trusted family member, friend, or colleague acts as a pressure valve, and you’ll often feel better after you’ve talked out the situation.
While dealing with unrelenting negative stress can sap our energy and have a negative effect on performance, optimal performance is usually achieved with a moderate amount of stress, Clark says. Put your anxiety to work by listening to what’s causing it, paying particular attention to those factors, and using your heightened state of awareness to do a better job, she says.