I’m about to share some thoughts about a touchy subject and to do so I’ll have to use a pretty bad word so tell Bobby to put on the earmuffs. I know everyone cringes when talking about this but I’d like to discuss Stress. It’s a bad word, I know, I’m sorry (please bear with me and I’ll explain myself). In fact, Stress is so reviled and hated in the health industry I fear I just might have to look over my shoulder the next few days until this blows over just for what I’m about to suggest.

You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase, “keep your friends close but your enemies closer” but I think we need to go one further: turn a longstanding, despised enemy into a dependable, supportive and encouraging friend.

Not only do I think stress is good for us but I think we need to tell Mom it’s time to invite Stress for a sleepover because it’s the under the radar cool kid that no one saw coming and becoming best friends with it might be the best thing you’ve ever done.

Rethinking Stress

Stress is tough, there is no doubt. Everyone deals with stress to varying degrees every single day and it is often intense and draining. Nearly every health condition you can name is negatively associated with stress. Obesity, cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, asthma, digestive problems, thyroid dysfunction, insomnia (and on and on) are all made worse by stress. It’s the bully at the end of the block you have to walk by everyday that pounds you any chance he gets. Stress is a bad dude who shows no mercy.

So why am I advocating befriending the most intimidating force since Scott Farkus? Because I think that stress (and our response to it) is misunderstood. On the surface stress is intimidating, often scary and overwhelming, but once you get to know it it’s actually a pretty cool dude and easy to get along with.

Stress on the body creates positive adaptations that result in the body becoming stronger. I’ve long felt that using stress to strengthen the body is a missing part of the modern world and something we can take advantage of. One of my favorite concepts is to Get Uncomfortable, which basically means put yourself outside your comfort zone, challenge the body and become stronger, more resilient and more robust in both body and mind. Use stress to your advantage and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Befriending the stress bully can change your life and how you approach just about everything stressful.

Changing your mind about stress can also make you healthier by changing how your body responds to stress. In essence, if you think that stress is bad for you, then it does indeed manifest in negative physiology. If you appreciate stress and how your body reacts it can actually be a beneficial physiological experience to be challenged by stress.

How To Make Stress Your Friend

Today I watched a TED talk that summed up this concept very nicely. It’s about 12 minutes but is well worth your time if stress is something you worry about and you’d like to know how to befriend it and use it to your advantage…

Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend

Just like her, I used to feel the same way: stress was the enemy and I needed to try to avoid, minimize or manage it at all costs or it would have detrimental effects on my health (or the health of people that I consulted with or cared about). Now I feel a little bit differently about stressful experiences. I enjoy, rather appreciate, stress for what it is and how my body handles it. I don’t enjoy stress per se, nor do I strive to maximize stress in my life, but I do enjoy not being “stressed out” by stress. People have been dealing with stress for our entire existence, as all mammals do and have always done. Life is about adapting to stress. Humans now have our own unique stressors at this point in time but that doesn’t mean that our bodies are not able to adapt to, gain benefit from and even grow stronger as a result of experiencing these newer stresses.

I’ve written and thought a lot about the concept of hormesis which most people know as small harmful but stimulating stresses that make the body overreact and eventually stronger as a result of exposure. We become more robust, less fragile and able to better deal with those same pressures in the future (i.e. exercising, eating vegetables, sun exposure, fasting, slight exposure to radiation, etc.). It is the stress of all these pressures that has shaped our species and helps define our existence now. Without stress we don’t evolve and grow and wouldn’t be the incredibly resilient creature we are. Our bodies are designed to use stress to our advantage. When we avoid stress or think of it as a harmful thing is when a problem arises.

The two key things covered well in Dr. McGonigal’s presentation are:
1) How you think about stress determines how good or bad it is for you. People that are stressed out by stress and think that it affects them negatively will indeed be impacted negatively. People who do not get bothered by stress or embrace stress (and/or the body’s reaction to it) usually are impacted favorably.

2) There are many physiological processes in the body that respond to stressful stimuli and (quite logically) we have built-in mechanisms to deal with and subsequently become more resilient to stress in the future. One of the most important mechanisms is how we use connection to other people to cope with and grow from challenges. Other people are one of our best assets in times of stress.

Two of my favorite quotes from this talk:

“The harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable. How you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress. When you choose to view your stress response as helpful you create the biology of courage. When you choose to connect to others under stress you can create resilience.”

“Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort… Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.”

Our bodies are made to experience, react to, overcome and become resilient to stress. So the next time your heart starts beating in a stressful situation be glad that your body is doing exactly what it should be doing: getting you prepared for the challenge. Think of the performer who gets butterflies before competition. Most athletes and artists say they expect and want to feel little bit of that. In fact, they often worry if they don’t feel that because it means that they’re engaged enough, not physically prepared or they’re too overconfident. Butterflies mean the body is in the moment, getting ready to rise to the challenge.

This is why I think we should strive to get to know, understand, connect to and embrace our stress. Whether you desire to seek out more small harmful stressors to strengthen yourself or you simply want to cope better with the ones you have, think of how helpful and empowering it would be to have stress on your side.

*Update: A couple weeks after writing this I came across a great article with much of the same thinking: Rethinking Stress: It Could Save Your Life.

Thanks for reading, have a great stress harnessing day!