The Secret Upside to Stress
by Dr. Simone Ravicz, happify.com
What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of stress? Premature gray hair? Ulcers? The urge to run to the nearest yoga studio? We all think of stress as the enemy—but is that always the case?
It's true that negative stress is by far and away the toxin of the day. At one of my recent speaking events, I asked two questions: "How many of you think that negative stress is an inevitable part of your life?" followed by "How many of you think you create the negative stress in your life?" I was surprised at the response. Not only because many of the same people raised their hands to both questions, but also because so many agreed with the notion that negative stress is inevitable in life.
I shouldn’t be surprised because, had I not studied psychology and stress for the last 33 years, I would probably have responded in the same way. When we consider our daily lives it certainly seems that negative stress is pervasive.
So, Where Does All This Negative Stress Come From?
It's a result of perceiving that you are being threatened and are unable to control the situation. You likely feel you cannot match the demands of the situation. You've probably heard of the “fight-or-flight” response arising from a perceived threat. During this reaction, your body goes through a number of changes: blood pressure, heart rate and perspiration increase; digestion slows; muscles tense for action; adrenaline and cortisol are released, and a host of other physical changes arise.
In addition, when we're negatively stressed, any negative emotions we're experiencing, such as fear, anxiety, anger or frustration, are intensified. All becomes well if the pent-up energy and stress hormones are used up allowing for balance in the body.
However, this equilibrium is infrequent for several reasons.
Blame Your Body for Overreacting
Firstly, you're reacting with the “fight-or-flight” response to events which are not life-threatening. A business deadline, a critical partner, self-criticism, rush hour…these are not life threatening events, but you're responding to these types of frequent, minor hassles as if they were. So you literally remain stressed out much of the time.
You Have Trouble Letting it Out
Secondly, the pent-up energy of the stress response is rarely let out as it needs to be to reset balance. If your boss is the stressor, you probably won't run up to him and grab him by the throat (although you may feel like it!). So, the negative stress level within you escalates, causing greater damage to your brain-mind-body. Look at your brain alone. Negative stress decreases creativity, interferes with memory processing, and impairs problem solving and decision-making.
So, What's the Key to Eliminating Daily Negative Stress?
One route is to go to the cause; namely, the irrational negative thoughts about yourself and the world which, for the most part, you may have held since childhood. These are deeply buried or subconscious and are called automatic thoughts (aka “stinking thinking”). They're the black and white, overgeneralizing thoughts such as "I'm a failure," or "I'm unlovable."
Find the Evidence. Repeatedly.
To rid yourself of negatively stressful thinking, you can challenge it with rational, evidence-based, and more positive thinking. Find evidence from within your life against the belief that you're a failure, for example. Doing this repeatedly and with conscious attention eliminates the dysfunctional thinking and creates and strengthens new positive neuronal pathways in your brain. The more you practice this, the more positive neural pathways become wired in your brain.
Adjust Your Mindset and Generate "Prostress"
The second secret weapon in helping you eliminate negative daily stress? Prostress, or positive stress. Prostress arises when you see a situation as a challenge rather than a threat. You believe you can learn or grow from it. You believe you have control over it (even if you don’t). You are actively involved in it and find it meaningful. You feel your resources can meet the demands.
A fascinating study by Alex Zautra and John Reich presented in the American Journal of Community Psychology revealed that those who experienced a "positive pawn" event (for example, receiving money) didn't experience prostress or much life satisfaction, whereas those who were actively involved in and had control over doing a meaningful action (making a new friend, learning a sport) reported prostress, a better quality of life and happiness. Many other studies support such findings about the positive impact of prostress on life satisfaction, mood and even success. The more prostress events, the better, found an earlier study by Larsen, Diener and Cropanzano in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
In fact, researchers have found that prostress actually counteracts harmful effects of negative stress on the brain-mind-body. It also boosts the immune system, increases good cholesterol, repairs muscle tissue, encourages physical growth and enhances brain development.
Jetting around the world or driving race cars may cause prostress for some; but events that lead to prostress don't need to be expensive—or risky. Activities like nurturing a hobby, hiking, or learning a language can generate prostress for many people.
What to Ask Yourself
The next time you find yourself in what seems like a negative situation, ask yourself some important questions: Can I view this as a challenge and not a threat? Do I have any control over the situation? Is there a way I can learn or grow from trying to turn this situation around? These questions can help you take direct action—and turn stress into prostress.
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Dr. Simone Ravicz, Ph.D, MBA, is a licensed clinical psychologist and business and life coach who helps overstressed small business owners and entrepreneurs maximize their income, obtain balance in their lives, and optimize personal fulfillment and family life. Her latest book is Brain Bliss: Seven Ways to Help Your Brain Help Yourself.