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My Top Three Things About Stress - Part 1: Rethink Your Stress Response!

The other day, a global company asked me for my input. They are creating a short employee training on how to deal with stress. Nothing too fancy, just some online resources they can access when needed, e.g. some general information about stress and some easy tips & tricks.

Stress is a HOT topic these days and there’s an overwhelming amount of information and hundreds of tips & tricks available. Trying to make a useful selection from that is stressful in it’s own right!

This company, however, had already done a great job at selecting some basic resources for their staff, mainly focused on behavioral aspects. Healthy diet and avoiding unhealthy habits, regular exercise and having an active lifestyle, getting enough sleep, connecting with friends and family, investing in hobbies and things that relax you or give you pleasure, mindfulness and deep breathing exercises.

Mostly common-sense solutions that have been proven to be beneficial in the face of stress. A great place to start. And there’s so much more!

In this blog series I’m going to share with you: My Top Three Things About Stress.

Part 1 - Rethink Your Stress Response!

Let’s start with a statement: Stress is part of (everyday) life and it isn't necessarily harmful for your physical and mental health & wellbeing.

True or false? True! It turns out that stress can be beneficial for our health, our wellbeing, and our performance and it’s important to remember that. Research in the field of positive psychology has shown that the mindset people have regarding stress determines how toxic stress really is. If you believe stress is your enemy, it will be!

Everybody knows about the ‘fight or flight response’ and how it’s elicited in the face of perceived danger or threat (which is what we call stress): Your body either gears up to fight the threat/ stressor, or to run from it.

Chronic changes in the sympathetic nervous system due to an ongoing or repetitive ‘fight-or-flight response’ have been associated with all kinds of physical hazards, including increased risk of cardiovascular disease. No wonder stress is viewed as the enemy, something dangerous that should be avoided!

In reality, we have more than one stress response in our repertoire. A ‘challenge response’ motivates us to rise to the challenge we’re facing. It gives us more energy, helps us focus, improves our performance under pressure, and increases our confidence.

Even though, on a physical level, the ‘challenge response’ resembles the well know ‘fight-or-flight-response’, the physical changes that happen during a ‘challenge response’ are NOT associated with an increased health risk.

In fact, the tendency to have a ‘challenge response’ is associated with superior aging, cardiovascular health, and brain health! And on an emotional level: Instead of feeling overwhelmed, the ‘challenge response’ makes you feel empowered by the stress in your life!

So what elicits the ‘challenge response’ over the ‘fight-or-flight response’ (or vice versa)? The answer is: Mindset. It’s about how you perceive the situation at hand.

  • Is it a threat, or a challenge?

  • Does the situation exceed the skills and resources available to you, or do you have what it takes?

  • Are you thinking things like “I can’t handle this”, or more like “I got this”?

In her book - ‘The Upside of Stress’ - Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal says:

Viewing your stress response as a resource can change the physiology of fear into the biology of courage. It can turn a threat into a challenge and can help you do your best under pressure”.

Viewing your body’s stress response as helpful is so powerful because it helps you believe that you can handle the situation at hand. This change in perception actually alters your physiology and your ability to take action.

What is currently stressing you out?

You might:

  • Be worried about an exam, a presentation, a performance review, or a job interview.

  • Have recently lost your job or are worried about losing your job.

  • Be going through a divorce.

  • Be behind on a major deadline at work.

  • Have a conflict with a friend, a co-worker or your spouse.

You can apply this ‘Rethinking Your Stress Response’ strategy anytime you notice signs of stress, like a pounding heart, sweaty palms, muscle tension, an upset stomach.

  • Realize it’s your body’s way of trying to give you more energy and help you perform at your best. For example: “My pounding heart is a sign that my body is rising to the challenge I’m facing”. Or: “The adrenaline in my body is preparing me to take deliberate action in response the challenge I’m facing.” Or: “This heavy breathing is getting more oxygen to my brain, helping me think clearly.

  • Worry less about trying to make those physical symptoms go away, and focus more on what you’re going to do with the energy that stress gives you.

  • Take a deep breath, not to relax, but to sense the energy that is available to you!

  • Then put the energy into practice, and ask yourself: “What action can I take, or what choice can I make, that is consistent with what I’m trying to achieve in this moment?

Want more?

  • Make sure to watch Kelly McGonigal’s TED-Talk!

  • And listen to this podcast by Michelle McQuaid!

I would love to hear from you!

What challenges are you currently facing, at work or in your personal life? How do you think about stress? Are you willing to try a new approach and rethink your body's stress response?

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