- Stress is inherent to the human condition.
- Stress often isn't harmful, but believing it is bad for you can be.
- Many of us can benefit from reframing and adopting more positive and productive beliefs around stress.
Stress is inherent. It is all around us. We experience stress from major life events–planned and unplanned–and also from daily stressors. Stress is a part of life.
Despite how familiar we are with the idea of stress, and given that it is entwined in our nature, it is shockingly difficult to define stress clearly. Stress is a wicked problem. It is a problem where the solution is complex and sometimes even unsolvable. All over the world, people are experiencing unparalleled levels of stress. Our daily lives are so stress-filled that it may sometimes seem that living life this way is inevitable.
Acknowledging and validating our current realities is one of the first steps to stressing wisely. We may find that we have more control than we think. And when we understand our level of control, we can find ourselves on a path toward living well.
Thinking About Our Relationship With Stress
We are bombarded with messaging telling us that stress is bad and will kill us. It is sometimes even considered the silent killer. This messaging is not helpful. So often, people are quick to share how to ignore, avoid, or ward off stress. Others suggest that being stress-free and happy all the time is the greatest goal. Well, my friends, these suggestions are maladaptive and ineffective. Stress is inescapable because it originates inside us (Hanley-Dafoe, 2023). There is no switch to turn this one off.
Researchers Crum et al. (2013) developed an eight-item measure called the Stress Mindset Measure to understand the extent to which an individual adopts the mindset that stress is debilitating or enhancing. I have adapted their tool to provide an example of how you would measure your perception of the impacts of stress.
Consider whether you agree or disagree with the following statements:
- The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided.
- Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality.
- Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth.
- Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity.
- Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth.
- Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity.
- Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality.
- The effects of stress are positive and should be utilized.
Reflect on your answers. Do you believe stress is bad for you? Do you think stress should be avoided? Do you believe your stress is going to kill you? Take some time to investigate where those beliefs came from. This way, we can plan a course of corrections to reframe any unhelpful stress beliefs that no longer serve us.
So, what is your relationship with stress? Is it serving you?
There will always be stress in our days, but we can learn to reframe it and adopt productive beliefs about the stress that help minimize needless harm and worry.
Thanks to thought leaders like Kelly McGonigal, a growing body of research shows that it is not the experience of stress that is bad for us. It is undergoing stress and believing that stress is bad for you that actually makes it harmful. McGonigal suggests that instead of minimizing our stress, we can learn to get better at it.
In her book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It, McGonigal shares three productive beliefs about stress that can help us reframe and minimize its harmful effects.
- View your body’s stress response as helpful, not debilitating or harmful; view stress as energy.
- View yourself as able to handle, and even learn and grow from, the stress in your life.
- View stress as something everyone deals with and a natural part of our humanity.
The findings by Crum et al. (2013) using the Stress Mindset Measure tool support the idea that how we think and speak about our stress matters. It is not the stress itself that is linked to negative outcomes, but our perceptions of stress that are most damaging. Rather than saying, “This stress is going to kill me,” try saying, “I am feeling this stress. I will give myself some time to unwind before approaching my next task.” We often respond to our stressors as threats or challenges instead of opportunities to grow or change. Yet when we change our outlook and view stress more positively, we can begin to take back control and handle stressors in healthier ways.
When I shared the topic of my next book with someone, I told them it was about how to stress wisely. Laughing in a doubtful tone, they said, “Can that be done?” Stress is a wicked problem, yet I wholeheartedly believe that there is a way we can all learn how to be well in this unwell world.
Stress permeates every aspect of our lives. We will never be able to outthink stress or run far enough away from it, nor should we want to. Stress does not have to be the enemy we often make it out to be. By shifting our mindset and learning how to productively and effectively work with it, we can make stress our ally. The story we tell ourselves about our stress matters. How we think about stress matters. Reframing and shifting how you perceive your stress and coexist with your stressors can be transformational for how you live your life and even your biology!
Crum, A. J., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(4), 716–733. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031201
Hanley-Dafoe, R. (2023). Stress wisely: How to be well in an unwell world. Page Two.
McGonigal, K. (2016). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you and how to get good at it. Penguin Random House.