Stress. Sometimes even the word can bring it on. And we have all heard how bad stress is for our bodies: heart attacks, high blood pressure, strokes, chronic headaches, depression, anxiety, and even weight gain (Wait! Stress can make me fat? Now I AM depressed) are just some of the negative effects stress can have on our bodies and minds. But we live in a fast-paced, high-pressure world where stress is impossible to avoid. So what do we do? Well, it turns out, there are some positive aspects to stress, and if we can learn to embrace stress, we can make it work for us.
Hans Selye, who coined the term as we understand it today, defined stress as ‘the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change’ (American Institute of Stress, n.d.), but the biggest change that some say we need to make is not physical; instead, we have to stop thinking it’s bad for us. In their article ‘Rethinking Stress,’ Crum, Salovey, and Achor (2013) discuss findings that suggest ‘stress mindset is a distinct and meaningful variable in determining the stress response,’ and in her TED talk, Kelly McGonigal discusses how those who view stress as a positive force have a physiological reaction that looks much more like what happens in moments of joy or courage.
Well, if we aren’t supposed to gather around the water cooler and complain about how stressed we are or collapse dysfunctionally in our chairs to wallow in our stress when we arrive home after a long day at the office, what are we supposed to do?
First, we need to understand that stress is our body’s way of preparing us to take some sort of action. Our heart rate increases, pumping more blood and oxygen to our lungs, brains, and extremities, which prepares us for increased breathing capacity, higher-order decision-making, and physical exertion. Stress also stimulates the adrenal glands, pumping extra adrenaline into our systems, giving us a sudden burst of energy.
Once we understand that stress is really our body’s way of preparing us to meet a challenge, we can embrace stress as something that motivates rather than debilitates. When we recognize the signs of stress, we need to acknowledge that something needs to change and then ask ourselves how we can use it to make progress.