Recently, I wrote an article on the impact that stress has on the body if it is let to run rampant. As a quick review, chronic overstress leads to being in a sympathetic state over time. This causes all kinds of issues such as high cortisol, increased inflammation, and weight gain. Being in this state for too long can eventually lead to hypertension, high blood sugar and even dementia.
A medical doctor named Hans Selye established these responses to stress about 80 years. After studying how rodents reacted to given stressors, Hans noticed that, no matter the type of stressor put upon the animal, the same bodily responses happened. In other words, he could stress the animal in any way, be that cold exposure, physical exertion, or micro-toxins, and he observed that the response was always the same.
Where Your GAS Comes From
What came out of this story is the General Adaptation Syndrome, or GAS. GAS suggests that your body goes through 3 stages of stress as the body is subjected to stressors over time:
#1) Alarm – During this first stage of the stress response, the sympathetic system is turned on (which, if you remember from above, is the fight-or-flight response). Your body releases hormones to prepare for physical activity.
#2) Resistance – When used correctly, the resistance stage of the stress response is where the magic happens. During this stage, the parasympathetic system attempts to adapt the body to the stressor and return it to homeostatic. However, if the stressor persists beyond the point of adaptation, the body will stay in “Alarm” mode. This moves us to the final stage of GAS…
#3) Exhaustion – If you’ve ever had a hard workout, you know what exhaustion feels like. However, in stress terms, the exhaustion stage is typically not where you want the body to be. During this stage, the body’s resistance to the stress may gradually be reduced, leaving the body weak from suppressed immune function and susceptible to disease. Because the stress has persisted for so long, the body is not able to adapt to the stressor.
You know the feeling…
Being a hard worker yourself, you can likely empathize with every level of the General Adaptation Syndrome. And, up until recently, I would have told you that this is the way that it is.
As I mentioned before, this is undoubtedly true. Especially if you’re running the body to the bone between work and family with little sleep. However, a recent book is beginning to change my mind about the impact stress can have on the body. So, let’s take a look at how you can make your stress work for you instead of against you.
The Effect You Expect is the Effect You Get
The name of the book that helped me in this area is called The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal. In her book, Kelly highlights some important points on how stress has been mislabeled over the years. So much so that, in us believing that stress is bad for us and causing us so much issues, it’s making us become unhealthier.
But, wait. Didn’t the studies of Hans Selye prove that the body will react to stress in exactly the same way, no matter what? Well, yes. As a matter of fact, his studies did find that to be true. However, if you noticed, the subjects of the study were slightly less advanced than you or I might be. Which makes the GAS findings slightly less relevant to humans (although, not irrelevant. Understanding GAS is absolutely essential for being able to get the most out of any stressor in your life).
In other words, there is one area where we have an advantage over rodents when it comes to “managing” stress. And that’s in what you BELIEVE stress is doing to your body. Now, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t work to reduce your levels of stress. Instead, as Kelly suggests, you need to shift your mindset about how stress impacts your health and life overall.
Stress is USEFUL
As Kelly says her book, “It turns out that how you think about stress is also one of those core beliefs that can affect your health, happiness, and success,” says McGonigal. “Your stress mindset shapes everything from the emotions you feel during a stressful situation to the way you cope with stressful events. That, in turn, can determine whether you thrive under stress or end up burned out and depressed.” So, yes, changing your beliefs about stress is the beginning of helping stress to IMPROVE your life instead of DEPLETE your life.
As I’ve said, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still strive to dampen down the amount of stress you have in your life. It just means that you need to begin to shift your mindset from “stress is killing me” to “stress is making me stronger”. To do that, let’s take a look at how you can start this mindset shift to build a strong and resilient mind.
Understanding Your Stress Mindset
I’m sure you’re thinking, “Sure, Jer. Let me go ahead and shift my mindset on stress after being told that its bad for me my whole life!” Yes, I know that I’m making it sound easier than what it is. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t start making a change today so that you can reduce the impact that stress has on your body tomorrow.
Changing your mindset on stress starts with understanding your current beliefs on stress and how they impact your life. As Kelly puts it, you typically fit into one of 2 mindsets when it comes to stress: the “stress is harmful” mindset, or the “stress is enhancing” mindset. For those that believe stress is harmful, you might feel that:
- Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality
- Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity
- Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth
As you can tell, these are all “negative” feelings towards stress. On the other hand, if you have a mindset that stress is enhancing, you might feel that:
- Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity
- Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality
- Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth
These feelings are all “good” feelings towards stress. Which means you’re more likely to gain the benefits of stress than to fall into the “exhaustion” stage of the cycle.
Understand Your Stress Mindset
To help you understanding how you feel about stress, take a moment to grab a piece of paper and pen. Set aside 10 to 15 minutes to sit and answer this question: how do I FEEL about stress? As you write your answer, pay attention to the words you use.
Following the examples from above, if you use words such as “depletes” or “inhibits”, then it’s likely that you have negative beliefs about stress. On the other hand, if you use words such as “improves” or “enhances”, then you likely have positive beliefs about stress. Either way, the point here is simply to build an understanding on what your current mindset is about stress.
3 Strategies to Change from “Harmful” to “Enhancing”
The next step, then, is to start to make the change from a “stress is harmful” mindset, to a “stress is enhancing” mindset. Doing this is simple. However, as the other part of this saying goes, it’s not easy. It’s simple because all you have to do is start to find situations where stress or anxiety is taking over and reframe them as being helpful to your development. It’s not easy because, well, you’re fighting millions of years of evolution. So, good luck!
No, seriously though, here are 3 things you can implement today to start turn that frown upside down and use stress to your advantage:
#1) Reframe “anxious” to “excited”
If you’ve learned anything in this article, I hope it’s that what you tell yourself about a given experience or feeling will dictate how you response to it. When it comes to stressful situations, a normal feeling to have is being anxious.
For instance, have you ever given a speech? Did your heart rate go up just by reading that sentence? If so, you, like 90% of the rest of the world, probably get anxious about public speaking. As a matter of fact, a recent survey showed the 30% of people would rather die than give a public speech (don’t quote me on that number).
If this is you, a simple strategy to use is to reframe that anxiety as excitement. How do you do that? Simple. Instead of saying “I’m so scared. I’m so anxious. I’m so fearful.”, replace that with “I’m excited. I’m excited. I’m excited.”. Seem silly, doesn’t it? However, research shows that this little trick is typically enough to put those anxious feelings aside to although you to perform at your best (if not better).
#2) Think about your “Bigger Than Self” Goal
If you’re like most people in the world, you’ve heard of Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why (if you haven’t heard of it, or haven’t read it yet, pick it up). In his book, he talks about the importance of leading with a bigger reason than numbers. You have to have a big “why”. And, typically, that why has to do with more than yourself.
In other words, you can’t go into a venture trying to only improve your wellbeing. If you really want to make an impact on the situation, then you need to have a bigger aspirations. You need to want to improve the lives of others. Not only in the current world, but also in the future. You need to have what Kelly calls a “Bigger Than Self” goal.
When you’re stressed, thinking of your “Bigger than self” goal can bring you back to reality. If, instead of thinking “why does this have to happen to me” you think “how can I use this to have a bigger impact on the world”, then your stress can be put aside.
#3) Build a like-minded community of supportive individuals
Have you ever been to a dinner or a party or an event and just felt at home? You know that feeling, where you feel absolutely comfortable, with no judgments coming your way? At our fitness training facility, Thriveology, we strive to cultivate this type of feeling for our Members by building a community of people that are just like them (we call our community The Pack. Watch THIS VIDEO to see for yourself. I get emotional every time I watch this).
The majority of our Members are between the ages of 50 and 58. So, they’ve all been through similar experiences. In this way, they all feel comfortable talking to each other about their particular experience in a given situation. Because they know there’s no judgment on the other side of the conversation.
If you’re struggling with long-term stress, find a community that’s filled with other people of similar circumstances. This will go a long way in helping you get better. Can’t find that community you’re looking for? Create it. Yes, this is scary. Yes, this takes guts. However, if you want to move forward in your life and become the best version of yourself possible, managing stress is imperative.
Mindset Matters…a lot!
Don’t overlook the importance that your mindset has on any given area of your life. As Henry Ford once said, “whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right”. For stress purposes, whether you think that stress is harmful for you or enhancing for you, you’re right. Start to make the shift to enhancing so you can become your best self and make an impact on the world.