"It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters."
Stress has a villainous reputation. It’s unlikely anyone blows out their birthday candles wishing, “I’d love more stress in my life, please!” Science tends to support this common stress is bad belief, with scores of studies linking stress with negative health and well-being outcomes.
Yet, as Stanford psychologist Alia Crum and her colleagues write in a recent article, “the truth of stress is not so grim.”
From physical thriving to post-traumatic growth, stress can have surprising benefits. It also happens to be a common ingredient of our most meaningful accomplishments—be it career success, cherished relationships, or raising children. As much as we’d prefer to reach our goals by cruising along smooth and scenic roads, stress—in one way or another—will tag along on our journeys. Instead of stonewalling it or trying to wrestle it out of our cars, we might as well try to befriend it.
In their stress optimization framework, Crum et al. (2020) argue that it’s possible to optimize stress (in other words, to make the most effective use of it) for our advantage.
It starts with our mindsets.
The way we evaluate stress can have important implications for how we will deal with stress when it arises in our daily lives. For example, if one thinks of stress as “bad for me,” then they would be more likely to carry the additional burden of being stressed about stress. Thus, every time they would feel stress, they would divert their efforts into trying to minimize the stress, in order to avoid its negative outcomes. On the other hand, if one values stress as being “good for me,” then, according to Crum et al., one is more likely to 1) not add further strain to their circumstances by worrying about the negative effects of being stressed, 2) accept the stress, and 3) feel empowered to optimize their stress response in order to achieve their goals.
Indeed, as previous research has demonstrated, compared to suppression or avoidance, acceptance of negative emotional experiences when faced with highly stressful situations is correlated with a host of positive outcomes. For example, stressed study participants who were trained to monitor and accept their present moment experience via brief mindfulness interventions showed reduced biological stress reactivity compared to other participants.
Consider not only how you evaluate stress, but also how you define it.
What is stress?
According to researchers:
“Defining stress as the anticipation or experience of encountering demands in one’s goal-related contexts, and separating it from outcomes, suggests that stress responses can be regulated—and ideally optimized—regardless of whether the stressor (i.e., demand) itself is viewed as “good” (e.g., having a child) or “bad” (e.g., having a disease).”
Thus, even if the cause of the stress is “bad,” a positive evaluation of stress itself can impact how people adapt their responses to stress to achieve their goals.
Here are four regulation strategies—situation selection, attentional deployment, cognitive change, and response modulation—from Crum et al.’s integrated approach to optimize stress.
Choose the right situations
Regardless of how stressful they potentially might be, try to be on the lookout for situations that create opportunities for growth and discovery. For example, one might resolve to stand up to unfair treatment at work (even if it involves having difficult conversations with colleagues); or sign up to run a marathon (even if it requires months of training).
“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” wrote 19th-century psychologist William James about one of the most undervalued yet detrimental human faculties. Use your attention wisely. Focus on the opportunities – both obvious and unexpected – that come with the stress, rather than ruminating about all that’s negative about it. For example, instead of dwelling on the nerves and jitters associated with an upcoming presentation, shift your attention to your ambition to perform well, and spend more time on preparing to achieve your goal. Research suggests that when we think of stress as functional (versus threatening), we pay more attention to positive stimuli, increase positive affect and have greater cognitive flexibility.
Change the way you think
Regulate your emotions by choosing new ways to think about the situation, the stress, and your own ability to manage it. For instance, instead of trying to cope with a stressful situation by minimizing or ignoring the stress that it carries (“I’m not stressing out about the upcoming presentation. I’m not stressing out. I’m not stressing out…”), optimize your response by changing the way you perceive the stressor itself (“It’s not the first or last time I’ll be asked to speak in front of an audience. It’s a great chance to gather experience. The more practice I get, the easier it’ll become.”) or by thinking about why you are capable of tackling it (“I’ve done my homework. I am well-prepared. I got this!”)
Modify your behavioral and psychological response
Instead of suppressing or numbing the stress in day-to-day situations, optimize your response by using the stress to attain your goals. For example, before stressful games, athletes often rely on various techniques to regulate their arousal in order to perform well. These might include listening to up-tempo music, pumping themselves up with motivational pep talks, or engaging in breathing exercises. Whatever strategies you might opt for in order to ride out the stress wave, having a “stress is good for me” mindset will encourage you to optimize the stress, rather than do everything in your power to get rid of it.
Stress can both harm and help us. The way we respond to stressors carries important implications for our health and well-being. By equipping ourselves with the right mindsets and strategies, we can learn to optimize the inevitable stress in our lives, instead of fighting to minimize it. In Crum et al.’s words, we can achieve our goals and thrive “not despite – but because of – stress.”
Crum, A. J., Jamieson, J. P., & Akinola, M. (2020). Optimizing stress: An integrated intervention for regulating stress responses. Emotion, 20(1), 120.
Crum, A. J., Akinola, M., Martin, A., & Fath, S. (2017). The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 30(4), 379-395.
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Shallcross, A. J., Troy, A. S., Boland, M., & Mauss, I. B. (2010). Let it be: Accepting negative emotional experiences predicts decreased negative affect and depressive symptoms. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 48(9), 921-929.
Lindsay, E. K., Young, S., Smyth, J. M., Brown, K. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2018). Acceptance lowers stress reactivity: Dismantling mindfulness training in a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 87, 63-73.