We’ve all been bombarded with the dangerous effects of stress. But many don’t realise that stress can actually enable and encourage the best performance. Could we be less worried about stress if we believe it could help us achieve our goals, be more compassionate, resilient and perform at our best?
April is Stress Awareness Month, and while we recognise that chronic stress can be harmful to our health, at Optimist Performance, we also want to raise awareness about the benefits of stress and how we can shift our mindset to benefit from it.
Stop feeling stressed about stress
It is impossible to eliminate stress completely. That doesn’t mean it has to be avoided entirely; instead, we can use it to our advantage.
Chronic stress is considered one of the leading causes of major diseases; however, research shows that it is our perception of stress that is dangerous, not the stress itself.
According to a study from the University of Wisconsin, People with high levels of stress, who also believed that stress was bad for them, had a 43% increase in the risk of premature death. Whilst those who experienced high stress, but didn’t believe it to be harmful, were at the lowest risk of dying – even lower than people who didn’t experience a lot of stress.
One of the primary factors in stress leading to heart disease is that our blood vessels narrow in stressful situations. However, another study from Harvard University found that people who viewed stress as a positive experience did not have any changes in their blood vessels. In fact, they stay relaxed while in a stressful situation, similar to what we see in people experiencing joy or courage.
Your stress mindset is powerful because it has the power to alter your body’s response to stress. So, it’s time to stop putting your health at risk; instead, now is the time to change your thinking.
Eustress: Positive stress
Can you recall a time when you were stressed but saw the situation as exciting rather than frightening? These ‘pleasant stress’ situations could include starting a new job, getting married, having a child, etc.
This kind of stress is known as Eustress or positive stress, and it was developed by Hans Selye, a Hungarian endocrinologist. Selye tried to demonstrate that stress, while a reaction to a stressor, need not always be associated with negative scenarios by distinguishing between good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress).
Our body’s stress response (fight or flight) is the same in a ‘good stressful scenario’ as it is in any ‘negative, stressful one.’ The distinction between them is based on how you view the situation.
There are some key differences between eustress and distress:
|You felt in control of the situation||You didn’t feel in control|
|You felt capable of overcoming the challenge||You didn’t feel capable of overcoming the challenge|
|It felt exciting, motivating and inspiring.||It triggered negative emotions, such as anxiety or concern.|
Your body and mind will react differently depending on whether you see the stressor (stressful event or scenario) as positive or negative.
In summary, eustress can lead to focused attention, emotional balance and rational thoughts. Distress, on the other hand, can cause impaired attention, boredom, confusion, apathy, burn-out and disorganised behaviour.
The benefits of eustress
If we want to change our perception and start looking at stress as something that can be beneficial for us, first, we need to be aware of the benefits.
It improves our focus and energy levels. Our bodies release cortisol and norepinephrine when in a stressful environment (the fight or flight response is activated). These hormones heighten our perceptions, raise our heart rates, and cause the brain to become hyper-aware. All of this helps us to become more concentrated and energised.
Increases performance and job satisfaction. Since it makes us more focused and energised, it helps our performance and, in turn, our job satisfaction.
It enables us to learn faster. Our brains work harder after a stressful incident to establish new pathways so that we can analyse, learn, and remember them in the future. As a result, our brains learn more quickly when we are stressed.
It makes us more resilient. When we’ve dealt with stress previously and “survived,” our brains have previous experiences to draw from when we’re faced with it again. As a result, we become more resilient.
It makes us more compassionate, social and empathetic. Another hormone we release during a stressful situation is oxytocin (the cuddle hormone). This hormone makes us crave social contact and improves empathy. The release of the oxytocin hormone during the eustress response could push people to seek or provide aid (McGonigal, 2014).
How can we turn “distress” into “eustress”?
We’ve looked at the positives of stress, but we now need to understand how on earth we apply it. Changing our view of stress is not that easy; it entails challenging a belief that has been ingrained in us for years. Nonetheless, there are some tips we can start doing today.
Rethink your opinion of stress.
When you feel stressed, rethink stress as something helpful instead of detrimental. View the signs of stress as energising; it’s your body preparing to rise to the challenge at hand.
Focus on what is in your control.
One of the main differences between eustress and distress is the perception of control over the stressor. When feeling stressed, focus on what’s in your control rather than worrying about the things you can’t.
Find a meaning behind the reasons for the stress.
Finding the purpose behind the stressor can help you turn a negative into a positive…spin it around. In a public speaking situation, for example, you might be negatively stressed about speaking in front of people who may or may not be interested in you, or you can consider why you’re doing it ( e.g. it’s an experience that can help you develop your career and achieve your goals). Find a way to make the situation exciting, inspiring, and motivating instead of dreadful and scary.
The Optimist view…
At Optimist Performance, we want to help everyone become the best version of themselves and being able to utilise our minds to achieve our goals is a big step towards success.
Distress or chronic stress can have serious consequences for our health and well-being, and we’re not minimising the risk, but we can do something about it. Changing how we think about stress and learning to manage our views and reactions to it can improve our health, performance, happiness, and overall quality of life. This is why, for April, we’d like to increase awareness about eustress and how we can change our distress into eustress.
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