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Stress Is Not Killing You

How your perception of stress can improve or weaken your health.

Key points

  • A threat mindset defines stress as damaging and the stress response as maladaptive.
  • A growth mindset defines stress as necessary to respond to challenges and stay true to one's values.
  • By changing their perception of stress, people can tap into the benefits of the stress response and enhance their health in the process.
Source: Krakenimages/Shutterstock

You’re tossing and turning in bed—your mind racing from the pressure you are under. Sleep is nonexistent, your days are exhausting and full of family, health, financial, and work-related challenges. The cumulative effect of this existence must be bad for your health, right?

The truth is, situations like the one described here are not ideal, but the damaging effect of stress on our health is not inevitable.

The Downward Cycle of Stress

Consider the challenges faced by chronic pain patients resulting from pain interfering with life. Even low-impact activities, like going for a walk, are painful. Concentrating on work is exhausting. Chores around the house feel insurmountable. As this stress increases, so too does muscle tension, changes in blood flow, and inflammation; all factors that make chronic pain worse.

This downward cycle of stress seems inevitable, but it is not.

Two key elements of our stress response are how we view both the challenging events in our lives and our body’s response. Typically, we view stress with what is known as a threat mindset; we believe that stressful events damage our health and that our physical response to the stress is maladaptive.

The problem with buying into the threat mindset is that simply believing it has a negative impact on how the body responds to stress. Research backs this up; negative beliefs about stress significantly increase the likelihood that we will physically suffer from stress—up to and including an increased probability of death!

The Growth Mindset

Yet, some people thrive in the face of life’s challenges. This arises because they have a different perception of stress and the problems that inevitably occur. Rather than seeing stress as toxic, they look at stress as alerting them to something important in their life being challenged.

Our stress levels are in direct proportion to what we value.

Instead of viewing stress as harmful to them, people who adopt a growth mindset believe that it is something that provides a benefit for them. In other words, experiencing stress can help us rise to the challenge of protecting what is important to us.

Here are three core beliefs of the growth mindset of stress:

  • Stress can enhance my response to challenges.
  • Stress can improve my health.
  • Stress can increase my learning and growth.

The body’s response to stress prepares us for action and facilitates healing, growth, and learning. Reframing our racing heart, muscle tension, and feelings of stress as something for which we should be grateful, we remind ourselves, “My body is helping me get through this challenge. I can handle this.”

Research has demonstrated that when we view our stress response as helpful, we are protected from its damaging effects. The growth mindset prompts us to use our stress response to engage in action to solve problems. From there, we can move forward and beyond the stressful episode instead of dwelling on the symptoms it creates.

The Importance of Values

Because we care, we experience emotional pain. Since stress is often related to our values, how can we reframe it so that we can tap into the strength that comes from caring deeply? If our family, well-being, and lifestyle were not important to us, we would be indifferent to what happens in life. But we do care. We want to do well, be well, and see those who are important to us thrive. Having clearly defined values gives us direction in life.

Values help us to know what we stand for and what matters.

Everything important to us can be threatened—that is the cost of being human and loving others. But vulnerability is a cost worth paying and our stress can remind us of all we have to be grateful for. Clarifying who and what is important to you will help you to find the sources of strength in your stress.

Look at stress as something inevitable, universal, and normal rather than unwanted or a sign that something is wrong. Yes, life is full of challenges, but there is no other direction for us to go except through these difficulties. It is how we go through them that matters. When faced with a difficult boss or financial hardship, focus on what you can control by living out your values regardless of what is happening.

Growth Through Stress

Turning stress into a catalyst for growth takes work. It will not happen overnight—at least it has not happened overnight for me! Be compassionate with yourself about your stress response, regardless of where it is right now. Practice gratitude towards the people and things you care about. View your stress response like an experienced skydiver might look, standing at the open door of an airplane before they jump out—their tension is just a sign of excitement that their body is readying for great things to come.

You’ve got this! The more you work at it, the more you will find yourself on the other side of your challenges stronger, wiser, and kinder—perhaps with an even greater appreciation for things you once took for granted. Every day, each breath is a gift. Stress reminds us of what is important in life.

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