Usually when you think about stress, you’re considering how to manage it or avoid it — or you’re reading about all the bad things it does to your body. But what if you reframed that thinking, and started using regulatory responses to actually make stress work for you?
Reframing stress as beneficial
In 2021, researchers published a call for “optimising stress” in the American Psychological Association’s Emotion journal. They proposed integrating theory and other research on stress mindset and stress reappraisal as an intervention to help people stop believing stress is “bad” for them.
The World Health Organisation defines stress as a “state of worry or mental tension” caused by a difficult situation and “a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives.” Encountering difficult situations and addressing challenges aren’t inherently bad; in fact, they can be good things.
Dr. Michael Leiter, author of The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships With Their Jobs, tells Lifehacker that the positive aspects of stress “are simply manageable pressures.” High-pressure situations can inspire greatness or at least peak performance, up to a point, and intense demands can focus the mind and sustain that performance. The trick is identifying whether and how stress can work as a motivator for you.
How to optimise stress
The researchers suggest altering your valuation system to be more flexible in deciding whether stress is simply “good” or “bad” for you. The goal is to reframe what you think is a “bad” stressor as a “good” one, as good ones can be motivating.
Louise Sanders, a stress consultant with The Stress Experts, says that in her practice, she advises clients to work on emotional regulation and stress appraisal, which she calls a “perception shift.” Stress, she says, could be like an anchor that weighs you down and stops you from moving forward, but with a perception shift, it can become a springboard that actually propels you forward into growth. She likens undertaking this reframing like you would a physical challenge. With practice and consistency, you can lift heavier and heavier weights. The same goes for your emotional regulation. With practice and consistency, you can increase the amount of stress you can tolerate, then give your emotional energy to what needs the most attention without allowing it to weigh you down.
That tracks with Leiter’s insight, too: “Working on the positive side of stress…requires insight into one’s way of working, and structuring the time and energy to maintain physical and mental wellbeing. Stress arises from a two-step appraisal: First, people determine that a situation contains a potential threat, then they determine whether they have the capacity to manage that threat. Putting oneself in the face of potential threats becomes more workable with a solid, reality-based confidence in one’s capacity to manage those threats.”
Just make sure to give yourself a break in between studying, preparing, or otherwise maximizing the value of your stress-turned-stimulus.
Try some stress management tools
Even though there’s a benefit to reframing your idea of stress and finding the good in it, stressful events are still, well, stressful. We’re all about finding ways to manage that while you work on optimisation, including trying out cognitive behavioural therapy techniques on your own or utilising tools. Try something like this:
- A meditation light that glows in different colours to guide your inhale, pause, and exhale.
- An essential oil rollerball (with great ratings!) that you can use when you want to calm down on the go.
- Good, old-fashioned lavender tea, loved for its calming properties.
- A massage gun for when you need self care in a major way.
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