“We get stressed if something important to us is at stake.”, explains Kelly McGonigal in her book, The Upside of Stress. What happens in our body is designed to help us deal with it. New evidence shows that stress can be a positive force if we’re willing to rethink how we respond to it.

The Positive Side of Stress

During the ‘fight or flight’ response our body releases a cascade of hormones that help it cope with the demands put on it. It isn’t a pleasant feeling, therefore our natural reaction is to try to stop it. However, seeing it in a different light, can help us stay with those feelings and emotions; and then take actions in line with our values.

Positive functions of the stress hormones:

Rising to the challenge

Cortisol, one of the stress hormones, doesn’t just suppress some biological functions that are not vital at the time of stress, but it also helps turn sugar and fat into energy. Making an immediate resource of energy available for our brain and body to launch into action.

Learning and growing from the experience

DHEA, released in conjunction with cortisol, strengthens our brain and balances the harmful effects of cortisol. It speeds up wound repair and enhances the immune system.

Connecting with others

Turning to others for support is a human condition.
We are wired to turn to others for support and offer help to them

Oxytocin urges us to turn to others for support or offer help to them. It helps build trust and strengthen social bonds under challenging circumstances. Oxytocin enhances empathy and intuition. There are lots of examples of communities getting together and thriving after having endured adversity.

The Upside of Stress has fascinating details of studies about the positive effects stress has on individuals. Research suggests that knowing about the upsides (reading an article like this one) has the power of changing how stress affects you in future.

How to use stress as a resource?

When we stop resisting it, stress starts to improve our performance. Remember, we feel stress because something that matters is at stake.

That’s why our brain and body work together to make us rise to the challenge.

Follow these steps when noticing your response to stressful situations:

  • Check-in with yourself: “What am feeling right now?” Name it. “Where am I feeling it in my body?” Locate it.
  • How is it changing my emotions? Recognise the change without labelling, analysing or predicting outcomes.
  • What do I need right now? Is there a simple yet deeply rooted need that you have to address with TLC (tender loving care)?
  • You are NOT alone. Self-compassion, or the courage to be with the uncomfortable in a helpful way, is much more productive than self-criticism.
  • Connect with people who are there for you. Don’t wait for the ‘defeat’ response to kick in and be driven into isolation, fear, depression or hopelessness.
  • Remind yourself about your values. “What matters to me?”

Being ‘good’ at stress is allowing yourself to be changed by an experience

To be ‘good’ at stress is about grit, growth mindset and acceptance. We’ll always have to face hardship and adversity. Maintaining trust in ourselves will help us cope better.

The point is not to suggest that we should attempt to turn everything bad into good. It’s impossible. Instead, it can be helpful if we learn to notice how the two sides of stress coexist. McGonigal’s research suggests that people who can see both the bad AND the good in it are more likely to experience post-traumatic growth.

Some of McGonigal’s take-aways for her readers

“Stress is harmful, except when it’s not. Stress increases the risk of dying, except when people have a sense of purpose. It (stress) increases the risk of depression, except when people see the benefit of their struggles. Stress is paralysing, except when people perceive themselves as capable…”

When challenged by life’s adversities the most helpful question to ask yourself is:

Do I believe that I have the capacity to make sense of the difficulty I’m facing; and see it as an opportunity to learn from?

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