September 11, 2017

How to Start Enjoying Stress. (Seriously.)

Stress gets a bad rap. In fact, most of us do anything we can to avoid it.

We are told over and over that stress is unhealthy and that ease is good.

When I think of stress, my mind instantly travels back in time to a recent vacation we made to Costa Rica. Ten days of pure bliss and barely any responsibilities, yet I was still in touch with stress and my stress response. I couldn’t escape it, even on vacation.

Travelling in a foreign place has its pitfalls, and I found myself in a rental car in the northern part of the country, careening headlong into a mountain of stress. There I was behind the wheel of my rental car on a narrow, winding, two-way road. I was dodging potholes like crazy on the side of a cliff with my eyes peeled for wild animals. It was a white-knuckle drive to be sure, and definitely one of my most stressful to date.

Whether it’s stress from work, a relationship, money, or family, it can be a strain and it often upsets us. It evokes an emotional and physical response that can sometimes seem uncontrollable. It breaks us down, depletes us, and, on occasion, can lead to physical injury and illness.

But what if we could soar above our stressful experiences by changing the way we approach them? It’s something I’m always working toward, and I’m not the only one. Harvard health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal wrote about this approach in her book, The Upside of Stress.

As it turns out, stress may not be so bad after all.

McGonigal says that by embracing stress and changing the way we think about it, we can actually alter the experience itself. She believes stress can make us stronger and happier people, if we only open our minds to it.

Embracing stress means feeling our heart beat faster and our palms sweat, and then breathing through it.

Embracing stress means changing our mindset around the idea that stress is bad and ease is good.

Here are some things to think about:

Stress is energy. Stress is a surge that moves through us, propelling us to deal with whatever obstacle we’ve encountered. It can be helpful to recognize the energy as having a beginning, middle, and ending. As human beings, we are conditioned with a stress response system that is a protective measure to keep us alive. Mindfulness meditation and yoga are excellent ways to help move the energy through us.

Stress gives us strength. How we approach the stress in our lives matters, because it alters how we respond to it. Assuming it’s bad for us can lead us to unhealthy ways of dealing with it. Instead, viewing stress as something that can help us grow and change can lead to more positive coping mechanisms.

The physiological changes in mind and body when we see stress as useful and not destructive are amazing. The meaning we put toward our experience is important, as is the language we use. Try repeating “I’m excited” as opposed to “I feel stressed.”

Stress is universal. Whether it’s work piling up or an in-law who evokes anger, everyone experiences stress. Different stages in life bring different stressors, but it’s helpful to know that everyone goes through it. It’s a natural part of the human existence.

Reframing Stress as Constructive

Once we can recognize what is making us feel stressed, we can adjust our mindset accordingly.

Research shows that how we perceive stress determines its effect on us. When we feel stress, it’s natural for our bodies to go into a “fight or flight” mode, which interferes with flexible thinking and conscious reactions. When we are able to tune into our stress and see it as a natural response instead of a threat, it becomes less distressing and more constructive. “Oh stress, here you are again.” Try talking to it!

An interesting fact is that during times of stress, oxytocin is released in the brain. Oxytocin is the hormone that can actually help your heart cells heal, and it prompts us to reach out to others for help. Dr. McGonigal goes deeper into this in her TED talk.

Our society today is all about staying comfortable and avoiding stress at all costs.

Stress exists no matter what life stage we are in. If we have to go through it, why not lean into it, make it work for us?

In my mindfulness-based, stress-reduction support groups, we focus on redefining our stress. We work on using the stress to empower, energize, and propel us.

When I reached the end of that long, stressful drive in Costa Rica I had a surprise waiting for me. I was filled with a sense of accomplishment and a chance to enjoy the natural beauty around me. I had earned it, and the next time I was forced up a long and winding road, the drive was a little easier.



Author: Amira Posner
Image: Author’s Own; Sharon Woods/Pixoto
Editor: Emily Bartran
Copy Editor: Khara-Jade Warren

Social Editor: Nicole Cameron

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Amira Posner