I’m about to tell you something that’s gonna upend everything you know about stress.
Recent research has found that stress can actually be good for you. And not just on an emotional level, stress can actually heal you physically, too.
The problem is we’ve been doing stress wrong.
We’ve been told that stress is harmful, that it puts us in fight or flight mode, which can cause long term health damage over time. This is true! However what researchers recently discovered is that there’s another mode we can go onto that’s not harmful and avoids the fight or flight reaction. In fact, this kind of stress can help heal our bodies and create a greater sense of well-being and self-esteem.
It’s called challenge stress.
Let me explain the difference. Here’s what we normally think of as stress:
Imagine you’re in a stressful situation and it feels out of your control. You don’t know how you’re going make it through, you don’t have the knowledge or skills to solve the problem, and you feel like you’re doing this on your own. This type of stress response is what causes us to go into fight or flight and yes, it is harmful to both our mental and physical health.
Now imagine the same situation, but instead of feeling out of control, you feel like it’s a challenge, and you feel sure you can figure it out. You may not know how to solve the problem yourself, but you know someone who would be a good resource and would be happy to help. You also feel confident that you can find information or solutions that will allow you to figure this out. You feel competent, confident and like this is a challenge you can handle. You also know that you have a support system of friends, family or coworkers who will support you as you deal with this situation, both logistically and emotionally. This is what researchers have named “challenge stress.”
Can you feel the difference in these two scenarios? The first scenario would cause all sorts of damaging changes in our hormones, heart rate, nervous system and immune system. The second scenario is quite different. It not only doesn’t damage our bodies, but when we experience this kind of challenge stress our bodies start to heal! Our immune systems go into a healthy mode, our bodies release happy chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin (the reward and bonding neurotransmitters), our heart rate becomes more healthy, and we gain feelings of self-efficacy and support from our tribe of fellow humans.
But how can we shift from traditional stress to challenge stress?
Next time you’re feeling stressed, here are 4 ways you can move out of unhealthy stress and into healthy “challenge” stress.
- Come back to the present moment. So much of our stress response is really about what we fear happening in the future because of our current situation. We play out all sorts of ways that the stressful situation could go wrong. I call this “the rolodex of catastrophe.” When you start to ruminate about how your stressful situation might turn out badly, gently and lovingly remind yourself that you actually don’t know how this will play out. Then, come back to this present moment and think about what you can do now to move forward in a positive way.
- Change your POV on the situation. One of the most interesting ideas to come out of these studies is that our thoughts about stress actually affect our physiological response to stress. If you think stress is harmful, it will be. However, if you think stress is more like a challenge or problem that you can solve, it will lower your risk of harmful effects. Kelly McGonigal writes that “High levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. But—and this is what got my attention—that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.” So next time you feel stressed say to yourself, “I can handle this! I just need to take it one step at a time.”
I saw this meme a few months ago and I think it illustrates this so beautifully. It’s actually not that hard to change our POV on life’s stressors (or in this case, life’s banalities) and create a whole new set of feelings of excitement and joy where we were once feeling stress, boredom or anxiety.
- Take stock of your resources. One of the hallmarks of shifting to challenge stress is the awareness that you have the resources to find a solution. This means not only resources or solutions you already know, but also cultivating more resources. So, when you feel stressed think about two things: how can I find more information about possible solutions? And who do I know that may have some answers (or be able to point you towards answers)? If you feel resourceful in the face of stress rather than ineffectual or overwhelmed, it will help shift you into challenge stress mode.
- Reach out to your support system. If there’s one thing we’ve collectively learned from the pandemic, it’s how important our support systems can be. There are so many studies that show the beneficial effects of reaching out and feeling supported. Having a good support system can prevent depression, lengthen life span, and of course, make stressful situations easier to manage. When you’re in a stressful situation, reach out to your support system for both practical and emotional support. This causes all sorts of positive physiological and hormonal changes in our bodies that promote health, happiness and healing on a cellular level.
I hope these strategies give you a new way to approach stress. And even if you don’t implement them, simply having the knowledge that stress isn’t harmful will help your health! How about that? You’ve just increased your lifespan simply by reading this post.
Take good care and have fun with your side quests today.