How to Thrive Under Stress

Everywhere you turn stress is touted as the bad guy.  Stress can not only impact your overall mood, increasing your risk for depression and anxiety, and your physical wellbeing, contributing to heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes,[i]but can also influence job performance, job safety, absenteeism, and disability. One in four Canadian employees will take an absence for stress.
Our workforce will continue to see a climb in stress levels, with Millennials and GenXers more stressed than previous generations.[ii]  Stress is not a problem to ignore.  It’s not going away.
What is the solution?  To get rid of stress, reduce workload, meditate, yoga, take a medication?
There is one solution that anyone can implement right away: Change how you think about stress.
That’s right, just changing your stress perception can be the difference between whether your stress will motivate you to strive for your best or give you a heart attack.
Perceived Stress
Perceived stress is the way we see the demands and pressures placed upon us, and our perception of how it impacts our physical and mental wellbeing.  There are 2 camps:
Stress-Is-Debilitating:  In this mindset, stressors are seen as overwhelming demands for which the individual may not have the internal resources to meet the pressures.
Stress-Is-Enhancing:  In this mindset, stressors are seen as challenges for which the individual has adequate resources to meet the pressures.

Your stress mindset can make a significant difference in whether or not stress will cause negative health consequences.  People who have a “Stress-Is-Enhancing” mindset have a lower stress reaction than those who see stress as a problem, meaning they actually produce less of the stress hormone cortisol.[iii]Cortisol is our main stress hormone, responsible for the fight or flight response, driving up our blood pressure and inhibiting our digestive and immune systems.
Not only does one’s perception of stress alter your stress response, but a stress-as-enhancing mindset also leads to improved health symptoms, higher levels of energy, greater life satisfaction, better work performance, and desire for feedback to enhance future growth and performance enhancement.[iv]
Stress Perception and Resilience
Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from adversity, pressures, and stress.  Having good psychological resilience enables you to move from distress back to eustress easily, bouncing back quickly from the physical and mental consequences of the stress response. Resilience is not necessarily a trait that you are born with, but is certainly a capacity that can be developed.
Having a Stress-Is-Enhancing mindset can lead to high resilience to stress.  Even if you are not a natural “optimist”, or don’t tend to see your stressors are challenges, you can change your stress mindset and build resilience.
Build Resilience Through A Good-For-You Stress Mindset
You are not stuck with the stress mindset you have today. The following are ways to build a Stress-Is-Enhancing mindset.

  • Label Your Stress.

Saying aloud how you are feeling (I feel tense. I feel scared. I feel anxious) changes the brain areas that are activated when you are stressed.  When stressed, our amygdala is lit up, which is associated with fear and the fight or flight response.  But when you label your stress, you light up the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for conscious thinking, problem solving and self-control.  By labelling your stress, you are elevating your brain’s reaction from a primal fight of flight response to a higher consciousness response.

  • See Stress as a Challenge.

Honing the Stress-Is-Enhancing mindset revolves around the ability to see a stressor as a challenge instead of a problem.  When you think “this is too hard, I can’t do this”, instead try “this will pose an interesting challenge; how do I tackle this?”. This change in thinking will not happen overnight, but as a result of conscious effort to reframe stressors as challenges.

  • See Stress as an Opportunity.

Similar to seeing stress as a challenge, you can also try to see it as an opportunity.  It can be an opportunity to hone you skills, to deepen social bonds, to build mental toughness, to master something, to find a new perspective, to develop richness in life.  Seeing stress as an opportunity is especially good for longer or more chronic stressors.

  • Seek Support.

Stress increases a hormone called oxytocin, which spikes when we feel “love” or feel connected to someone else.  This hormone spikes in stressful times to propel us to seek support.  Once we seek the support, by getting a hug or feeling cared for, our oxytocin levels increase even further – generating a positive cycle.  Oxytocin is also anti-inflammatory and heart protective, which means the more oxytocin you feel during stress, the less the stress will contribute to heart problems or inflammation.
[i]NIMH 5 Things You Should Know About Stress
[ii]Stress In America Report. American Psychological Association, Feb 4, 2015
[iii]Crum, Salovey, & Achor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2013, Vol. 104, No. 4, 716 –733
[iv]Crum, Salovey, & Achor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2013, Vol. 104, No. 4, 716 –733
Article Written By: Jaty Tam ND. Dr. Jaty is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor in Toronto and the Medical Director and Co-Founder of Well Street Health. Driven by her passion for health education, and her desire to bring wellness principles to the corporate world (in which she spent many years before becoming a Naturopathic Doctor), Dr. Jaty, continues to inspire audiences through Keynote Speaking  and building innovative corporate wellness programs that cultivate winning wellness cultures

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