Stress isn’t fun, but it can be productive.
In a new report, a team of doctors at Harvard Medical School suggest that turning a stressful situation into a chance to shine requires a simple change in mindset. Their findings are detailed in a Harvard Medical School health report called “Stress Management.”
“The key isn’t to deny stress, but to recognise and acknowledge it,” the authors wrote in the Harvard Healthbeat newsletter, which summarises the report’s key findings.
In other words, in order to turn a stressful situation on its head, you should think of how your newly alert state might be helpful — as opposed to trying to fight or ignore it.
When most of us get stressed out, our bodies respond with the familiar “fight-or-flight” reaction. Our hearts race. Our minds swim with worries. Our tissues even get inflamed as our bodies prepare to fend off future wounds.
But others experience different responses. Some people get what researchers refer to as an “excite-or-delight” response. Instead of feeling panicked, they’re flooded with feelings of euphoria. Instead of a stagnation in blood flow, their veins and arteries open up, allowing for faster and better circulation. In other people, the body may go into “tend-and-befriend” mode, a response that psychologists consider “highly resilient” since it involves feeling a need to reconnect with friends and relatives and to ensure our loved ones are safe.
According to the folks at Harvard, those who naturally go into the first reaction can consciously encourage themselves to adopt aspects of the second and third responses by shifting the way they think about anxiety.
“Dialling back from full-on fight-or-flight can be simply a matter of changing your mindset,” the authors of the newsletter wrote.
They draw on research from Stanford University lecturer and psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal, who wrote the book “The Upside of Stress.” According to McGonigal, the most helpful mindset towards stress is viewing it in a way that she calls “protective.”
The three most protective beliefs about stress, McGonigal said in an interview with Stanford, include:
- Trying to see your body’s natural response to stress as something that’s helpful
- Recognising that you can handle the stress in your life “and even learn and grow from” it
- Keeping in mind that stress is something all of us encounter
Instead of trying to avoid or combat stress, embrace it, McGonigal says. “Once you appreciate that going through stress makes you better at it, it can be easier to face each new challenge.”
The Harvard researchers suggest that the next time you find yourself in an anxiety-driven scenario, you should take a moment to reflect on your feelings.
“If you are feeling nervous … ask yourself if it’s because you’re doing something that matters to you and therefore reinforces your values and gives meaning to your life,” they write.
No matter what you’re doing, don’t try to ignore feelings of anxiety. Instead, see if there is a lesson to be learned. You may be connecting with yourself or those around you on a deeper level, for example, or you may be getting stronger.
Still, stress should not be a constant in your life, and shouldn’t interfere with daily tasks at home, school, or work. If you feel like that’s the case, talk to your physician.
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