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How to Make Stress Work for You

Stress causes the same physical feelings as excitement. And you can teach yourself to reinterpret those feelings as motivation, rather than anxiety or fear.

“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.…”

— Hamlet: Act 2, Scene 2

Picture this: Your school’s football team is about to take the field for an important game, and they’re fired up. The quarterback is bouncing on his toes. Through his helmet you can see his eyes are wide and alert, his breathing heightened and shallow. You can practically hear his heart pounding through his jersey. He’s … amped!

These physiological sensations (rapid heartbeat, heightened awareness, twitchy or tense muscles), known as the fight-or-flight response, evolved so our ancestors could mobilize for action in the face of a challenge (for instance, a ferocious bear, or a neighboring cave dweller wielding a club).

Now picture this: You’re walking into the exam room for finals. You’ve put in the study time, and you’re pretty confident you know the material. As you take your seat, your eyes are wide and alert, your breathing is heightened and shallow. You can feel your heart pounding, and your palms are little sweaty. Sound familiar? Yet, you interpret these same physical responses as anxiety. You describe yourself as feeling … stressed.

But what if you thought of yourself as the quarterback, fired up for a challenge?

In both scenarios, you and the QB are experiencing the exact same physical responses. But your brain is interpreting them very differently. Whereas the QB feels charged up, ready to rout the opposing team—excited!—you interpret these sensations in a negative way.

“But what if you thought about your responses instead as signs that your body was energized, preparing you to meet this challenge?” asked Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McGonigal in her 2013 TED talk. “Your pounding heart is preparing you for action [in this case, taking the exam]. Your quickened breath is no problem; it’s getting more oxygen to your brain [to answer those tough questions].”

After years of lecturing about the evils of stress—how it wreaks havoc on your nervous system, kills your confidence, and maybe even you—McGonigal’s done a complete about-face. Her change of heart is based on studies showing that it’s not the stress itself that’s bad but rather how we think about it. McGonigal now wants you to make stress your friend—because new science shows that how you interpret the symptoms of stress can have a big effect on how stressed you actually become.

fired up for a challenge

Yup, how you think about stress can make you less . . . stressed!

Stress, anger, and, yes, excitement all share the same physical signs: a racing pulse, quickened breath, flushed face, nerves on edge. The only difference is how your mind interprets them, and that usually depends on the situation. Walking into an exam room, for example, means you’ll likely interpret these sensations in a negative way. And left unchecked, these thoughts can become self-defeating. So why not reframe your thoughts as if you were that football player? That would mean your physical responses are your body’s way of pumping you up so you can rise to the occasion—i.e., score big on your exam. You’re not anxious, you’re ready for action!

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology confirms that how you think about stress matters. For the study, the lead researcher asked participants to perform a series of stress-triggering tasks: performing karaoke in front of strangers, public speaking, and solving math problems under time constraints. Before each activity, the study subjects, who wore heart-rate monitors, told themselves one of three things: “I am calm,” “I am anxious,” or “I am excited.” The results showed that those who said they were excited felt more confident and performed their tasks better than those who described themselves in either of the other two ways. By changing the narrative, participants were able to make their body’s responses—racing heart, tension, sweating—work for them.

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Stress is inevitable—so learn to make it work for you

Life isn’t always smooth sailing. We can’t eliminate everything that causes us stress. And, in reality, “we all need a certain amount of stress in our lives,” says Marni Nagel, PhD, a licensed psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Orange County. “Without it, boredom and amotivation can kick in.” According to Nagel, looking at all stress as bad stress is a mistake. Research shows that there is an inverted U curve when you look at the impact of stress on performance. “Positive stress, or eustress, can increase your attention, so you feel that drive to produce something,” she says.

Once you’ve accepted stress as inevitable, and even necessary, you can begin to reapproach it.

A 2015 article in Harvard Business Review by Stanford Psychology Professor Alia Crum and her father, author and presenter Thomas Crum, makes the same point, that stress can and should be a good thing. “Stress shows us that we care,” they say, meaning that if something weren’t important to you, you wouldn’t sweat the outcome. “[Stress actually] connects us directly with the most challenging and important aspects of our lives,” they wrote. The fight-or-flight response is a sign that our body and brain are working together.

According to Nagel, people who interpret a stressful situation as exciting or positive are better able to remember those experiences positively. When you view the stress response as helpful to your performance, you’ll be less anxious and more confident. In other words, when you change your mind about stress, your body will believe you.

good stress

3 tips for making stress work for you

1. Shift your thinking

Next time you start to feel anxious, remind yourself you have a choice. You have the ability to change your thinking, to reframe a “threat” as a challenge. You don’t have to stay stuck in the same negative thought loop. Learn to reframe obstacles as opportunities.

2. Work with your body

If you’re about to do something that makes you nervous — say, go for an interview or take an important test—bounce on your toes, size up the challenge, give yourself a pep talk. One study showed that trying to talk yourself out of your nervousness actually has the opposite effect, as it goes against the body’s natural tendency to respond to stress. (Taking some big deep breaths, however, will calm the body’s nervous system, so you could give that a try.) Think of the challenge not as something negative but as a positive journey to a desirable outcome.

3. Keep healthy habits

Recognize that stress happens to everyone. And when you find yourself in the midst of a stressful period, don’t let healthy habits fall by the wayside. According to Nagel, most people forget to take care of themselves, which can hinder a positive outlook. “It’s easy to grab a Red Bull and a candy bar,” she says. Actually, getting more sleep, eating healthfully, and remembering your workouts or just going for a brisk walk can help you feel your best. And that will be an incredible asset when you’re trying to feel positive during times of stress.

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