How to Make Stress Work for You

How to Make Stress Work for You

More Stress Today

We are all feeling stressed to some degree lately, whether it’s due to loss of a job, COVID health fears, becoming teachers to our children, caring for parents, social unrest or general concerns about the future. 

Recent reporting in Healthline from a 2020 study in the journal American Psychologist shows: 

“Americans between 45 and 65 years old are experiencing more stress today than people their age did in the 1990s. Experts believe changes in technology, family and relationship dynamics, and economic hardship are some reasons for this.” 

For mid-career professionals, there are unique challenges that may be affecting stress levels. From the Healthline article, these may include:

  • More demands and pressures placed on you
  • Entering/continuing management roles
  • “Sandwich generation:” Caring for parents and nurturing teens/young adults; grandchildren too sometimes 
  • American culture deemphasizing the importance of the older generation
  • Technology connecting people all of the time
  • Work from home = always connected
  • Divorce/separation later in life affects economics for women who need to catch up in the workforce

Current coping mechanisms are not working

If you have been feeling that life is more stressful, you are correct and you are not alone. Add to the list above our current stressors in 2020 and it’s difficult to see how to bring peace and calm to our lives. Our current coping mechanisms do not seem to be working. Go on social media, read the latest articles and you’ll see everyone is talking about this, but we’re not finding relief. It’s like running in a hamster wheel, but not getting anywhere.

What can we do to deal with feeling overwhelmed and stressed out? Is it possible to make stress work for you, not against you, in these turbulent times?

Change your mindset about stress

What if instead of reacting to the stress around us, we could be proactive and use it to our advantage just by changing the way we think about it? Instead of trying to dodge stressful thoughts and situations, it is possible to learn how to harness stress and come out stronger. 

On NPR and the TED Radio Hour, Kelly McGonigal, research psychologist at Stanford University and the author of The Upside of Stress, touched on this in her talk “Can We Reframe the Way We Think About Stress?” Dr. McGonigal says that adjusting the way you think about stress can actually change the way your body responds to it. “Normally, we interpret these physical changes (breathing faster, breaking out into a sweat) as anxiety or signs that we aren't coping very well with the pressure. But what if you view them instead as signs that your body was energized, was preparing you to meet this challenge? That pounding heart is preparing you for action. If you're breathing faster, it's no problem. It's getting more oxygen to your brain.”

Imagine having this perspective when you get the call for an interview: with your senses heightened and brain pumping on all cylinders, you are able to think through the interview prep strategically and go into the interview energized and ready to perform well. In this posture, Dr. McGonigal would say you are using stress energy to take actions towards what matters most to you. 

Some more interesting findings about stress from Dr. McGonigal’s studies:

  • If you appreciate that going through stress makes you better at it, it gets easier to face each new challenge.
  • The expectation of growth sends a signal to your brain and body: get ready to learn something, because you can handle this.

Stop fighting stress – make yourself immune

Did you know that even “observing someone who is stressed – especially a coworker or family member – can have an immediate effect upon our own nervous systems?” In “Make Yourself Immune to Secondhand Stress” (Harvard Business Review) Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan emphasize how hyper-exposed we are in our highly connected world. Especially now that we are staying at home more in the time of Covid, our levels of togetherness can make even the best relationships challenging. How can we find ways to improve our emotional immune systems and avoid the negative effects of secondhand stress? 

Achor and Gielan offer these tips:

Change your response - Instead of fighting and being frustrated at negative people around you, take it as an opportunity to feel compassion or a challenge to help that person become more positive.

Create positive antibodies - We need behaviors that can neutralize the negative effects of a stressed person. The first comment in a conversation often predicts the outcome. Try to start your phone calls not with “I’m swamped” or “I’m so busy.” Instead, start with a breath and calmly say: “It’s great to talk to you.”

Build natural immunity - One of the greatest buffers against picking up others’ stress is stable and strong self-esteem. Remind yourself of the positive things in your life and use self-talk to remember you can handle whatever transpires. Exercise is one of the best ways to build self-esteem. 

Inoculate yourself - Start your day with these 5 positive psychology habits from Achor’s TED talk: 1) writing a 2-minute email praising someone you know; 2) writing down three things for which you’re grateful; 3) journaling about a positive experience for two minutes; 4) doing cardio exercise for 30 minutes; or 5) meditating for just two minutes.

Feel a stressful situation coming on? Try using these tips and see if you can improve your own mindset and those around you.