How You Can Make Stress Work For You

Recent studies reveal that how we think about our stress impacts us far more than the stress itself. Learn how to channel stress the right way and you could become happier, healthier and more productive.

The harmful effects of stress are amply documented. Everything from cardiovascular disease to lost productivity to mental health issues to early mortality. Stress can negatively impact every system in our body and accounts for as much as 90% of visits to the doctor. Stress contributes to depression and a range of mood issues. Stress impacts relationships and interferes with our sleep. The negative outcomes of stress are seemingly endless.

But you don’t need research studies to tell you that stress is bad. You’ve undoubtedly experienced it yourself – many times. Whether freezing up from stress when you needed to speak in public or feeling worn out from the stress of work, or experiencing physical issues such as tension headaches or poor digestion or even more serious ailments.

By every measure, stress is bad for you. And unfortunately, there’s no shortage of it. The World Health Organization calls stress the “Health Epidemic of the 21st Century,” with Americans experiencing as much as a 30% increase in stress in one generation and no sign of reversing course anytime soon.

And yet, some recent studies claim that stress negatively impacts only those people who think that stress is bad for them. Yes, incredibly, these studies seem to make the case that if you think stress is good for you, then it will be.

In 2013, a University of Wisconsin study involving 30,000 participants found that, of those who said they experienced significant stress, the ones who viewed stress as harmful had a 43% higher chance of dying. Meanwhile those who experienced stress but believed stress was positive were the least likely to die of any of the participants. Similar studies since then have drawn similar conclusions.

While some psychologists are now touting the new research as proof that our stress harms us only because we think it does, they are not without their critics.

In seeming contrast to the studies, we also know that activities such as meditation and exercise have a positive mental and physical impact in part because they reduce our stress levels. Peak performers in a variety of fields from music to sports to video gaming show an uncanny ability to operate from a state of calm. It is the stressed performer who almost always is the inferior performer.

So what’s going on? We know that relaxing and reducing stress can improve our health and performance in every possible way. But the new studies claim that stress is good for you if only you think about it differently.

When Stress Is Not Stress

The conundrum may have more to do with what we call stress and what we do with it than with the stress itself.

When you exercise, you stress your muscles and heart and lungs. In doing so, your body gets stronger. If you instead tense up your muscles for extended periods, they’ll not only weaken but you’ll start feeling pain. Both are examples of physical “stress,” but with very different physical outcomes.

Similarly, if you have to speak in front of a crowd and you start worrying about it, engaging in ruminative thinking about everything that could go wrong and letting those butterflies in your stomach get the better of you, you’re not likely to hit your talk out of the park. And at the end of it, you’re not going to feel great, either physically or mentally.

But if that slight nervousness you feel instead turns into genuine excitement about delivering your message to this audience, you’ll feel great and your talk will be great. In both situations, it’s the same adrenaline running through your system, and many of the same chemicals swirling through your brain. But as with the contrast between exercise and muscular tension, the end result could not be more different.

This difference is likely what is going on in these recent studies. Those who had a lot of stress but didn’t see stress as harmful didn’t necessarily experience what we typically think of as stress. Because stress is usually not caused directly by an outside event, but by how we react internally to that event.

And how we react internally involves how we use our energy - at its heart, stress is energy. And so is tension. But tension is blocked energy, while the energy of stress can be turned into excitement, joy, courage or a host of positive and energizing states that can pull you forward.

How To Make Stress Work For You

So how do you make stress work for you rather than against you? These three core principles can help:

1. Don’t “try to relax.” You’ve probably heard of the exercise where you are asked to not think about a pink elephant (or some other unusual image). And by trying not to think of the pink elephant, all you can think about is the pink elephant.

Thinking about stress works the same way. No doubt, someone at some point has told you to “try to relax.” It’s bad advice. When you try to think about not being stressed, you’re going to be thinking about how stressed and not relaxed you are just as surely as you’ll think about the pink elephant.

A better way is to embrace your stress. When you “try to relax,” you immediately put yourself in opposition to the stress. And once that battle is joined, you’ll only become more stressed. Instead, simply stand back and notice your stress. Acknowledge that it’s there.

Don’t try to make it go away. Don’t try to relax. Simply sit with the stress in a detached way. Observe it from a distance. Pretty quickly, you will have changed your relationship to the stress and feel more control over it without trying to control it.

2. Feel the energy. As I mentioned, stress is energy. Once you’ve acknowledged and noticed the stress, begin to notice the energy that is in the stress. Notice the energy causing those butterflies in your stomach. Notice the energy behind your concern about an event in your life. Notice the energy that is in the worry about meeting that deadline.

If you haven’t done this before, it can take a bit of practice up front, but will have big long-term benefits. Once you notice the energy of your stress – specifically the energy that is in the physical sensation of your stress – you can much more easily direct it to positive ends. Those butterflies in your stomach can be transformed into energized excitement that will raise you up rather than derail you.

3. Just enough and no more. A central tenet of Tai Chi and several other martial arts is to achieve maximum impact with a minimal amount of effort properly directed. This principle is especially relevant to how we experience stress.

Relaxation really is at the heart of most peak performance. But we need at least a bit of “stress” to get anything done. Try holding a pencil. The muscles of your fingers and hands need to exert just enough pressure for the pencil not to fall to the floor. By maintaining that minimal level of “stress” you could hold the pencil all day.

But try exerting just a bit more pressure than that, and pretty soon your hand will start to ache.

In all of your activities, try experimenting with applying the least amount of stress necessary to accomplish your task. And no more than that. This is as true in the mental realm as in the physical. If you are trying to solve a problem, apply the minimum level of thought to it.

That is – think about the problem. Brainstorm some solutions. Take some steps. But the second you find yourself engaging in worrisome thoughts, back off. Those thoughts are excess to your process of solving the problem. They don’t add anything constructive and only serve to hold you back by adding excess stress that you can't use productively. They create mental tension in the same way as tensing your hand while holding the pencil creates physical tension. And with the same result.