Year of Resilience Tip 4: Don’t Fear Stress
When we fear the emotions and feelings of stress, we accelerate their negative effects. Reframe your stress response as a signal for action. Changing your perception of stress allows you to regain power over life. The tip this week is to get comfortable with the uncomfortable moments of stress.
Do you ever feel stressed about stress? We read so much about the damaging effects of long-term stress it’s beginning to feel like the monster under the bed, always lurking in the dark ready to grab your leg and drag you down.
The worst thing you can do is fear stress. You can’t avoid it. In fact, you need it.
It alerts you something is wrong. It’s the warning signal that you need to take action. It would be impossible to avoid all stress. Even if you lived on a tropical island with no worries, your mind would still find ways to trouble you to take action. As humans, we can’t remain still. We are meant to grow. We are goal-attaining beings.
Like the guidance system on a
plane or missile, the warnings are meant to keep on track to the planned destination.
Stress functions the same way for you in life. You have goals, both spoken and unspoken and when an obstacle arises that seems to prevent that goal, your stress system kicks in.
Why We Fear Stress
Feelings of stress are a protective measure meant for survival. Imagine life before modern times. You enter a forest to hunt and gather. You hear a twig break and turn your head toward the sound. Nearby you see a large bear looking at you. Immediately, your stress hormones kick, adrenaline spikes, and your heart rate increases to deliver more oxygen to your blood and brain. You are ready to flee, fight, or develop a strategy to survive.
This instinct has allowed humanity to survive and thrive for a long time. Unfortunately, most of us don’t live in a world of mortal danger, but that same system lives deep within us. We still feel the stress response but because the situations are not objectively dangerous our mind remembers those feelings as false alarms. We then become anxious or avoid those feelings.
While most of us rarely face those moments of extreme danger, we still must deal with stressful feelings when they arise.
Thinking Differently About Stress
A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology demonstrated that students who viewed stress as a coping tool performed better on exams than students who were told to ignore stressful feelings.
Another study published in the Feb 2020 journal Emotion from the American Psychological Association suggests that teaching people the benefits of stress response can improve performance and the ability to respond to stressful events.
Here’s the trick. Stress is more damaging if you perceive you don’t have the resources to handle it. That’s exactly what happens internally when you fear stress, avoid it, or try to squelch those stressful feelings. However, if you see stress as a tool or signal, you build the resources to view events as a challenge or path to personal growth.
Tips for Reframing Stress
1. Recognize Stress is Normal
Stress can be positive. For example, getting excited over a positive event generates the same stress hormones as negative events. Also, when stressful feelings arise can be a signal that you need to take action. Yes, you may not be chased by a bear through the woods, but whatever is in front of you needs to be addressed. As long as you confront those feelings of stress and don’t allow your nervous system to live in a constant state of stress, you will use stress as your body intended.
2. Increase Your Self-Awareness
Be aware of your own stress triggers, and the feelings you have when stressed. Understand your physical responses to stress. As you become more aware of how you respond and what causes stress for you, you can use stress to overcome obstacles and increase your own performance and skill set.
Maybe you clench your teeth or begin to sweat or your heart rate increases. Notice these signs, and then connect them to what is causing them.
3. Embrace your power to control
You may not be able to control the circumstances of life, but you can control your response. Don’t allow yourself to devolve into a victim mentality. This only increases the levels of stress and anxiety in your life. Having a sense of control and belief that you can handle the obstacles life throws at you will reduce the physical symptoms of stress.
4. See stress as a challenge
Rather than fearing stressful feelings, they signal that you have a potential challenge ahead. This is a challenge you can overcome and develop greater personal skills and abilities. When you see situations as a threat you are focusing on your shortcomings rather than your abilities. The stress response can be part of the learning experience.
5. Be a Problem-Solver
When sensing feelings of stress, immediately ask yourself about the options you have to deal with the stress that is before you. Over time you will train your brain to begin this problem-solving exercise automatically at the signs of stress. By making a mental list of all the resources and skills you have, you begin to create options for yourself, and the negative feelings of stress begin to lessen.
Begin to think about stress as a tool and you will discover opportunities in how you approach work and the relationships you need to cultivate to perform your best. Inside the Fierce Resilience course, we use this approach to first build self-awareness of your unique stressors and then provide the tools you can use individually and as a team to build resilience.