No matter who you are, you probably aren’t asking for more stress in your life or declaring things like, “I’ll take another round of stress please!” or “Oh good, stress, I was feeling way too relaxed!” If you’ve got more stress than you’d like, you’re probably looking for ways to avoid it or make it go away. Like the monster under the child’s bed lurking, if you don’t make a wrong move it should just mind it’s own business right?
The truth is most people have a negative relationship with stress, viewing it as the scary enemy that’s only bad for you. But when you start to examine some of the common misconceptions of stress you may begin to wonder, “what would happen if I changed my thoughts and actions around stress and the way I relate with my stress?” What would happen if you became friends with the monster under the bed called stress?
Although there are common felt sensations and shared circumstances one may experience, stress is ultimately different for everyone. This is perhaps the reason why many people have their own views and perceptions on what stress means to them. Here are some of the common misperceptions that perpetuates stress as the enemy…
1. Stress is a negative emotion.
Feeling stressed out is often associated with feeling helpless, anxious, nervous, isolated, frustrated, angry, and depressed or any other number of negative emotions. But the term “stress”, as it is currently used was coined by Hans Selye in 1936, who defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. Whether from routine stress like the pressure of day-to-day responsibilities or traumatic stress like assault or near death experience, stress demands our attention for change. Stress is not a negative emotion; it is a bodily response to a demand in our environment to change.
2. Stress is a sure sign something is wrong in your life.
We only feel stress when something we care about is at stake. Stress and meaning are inextricably linked. You don’t stress about things you don’t care about, and you can’t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress. Rather than stress being a sign something is wrong with our lives, it can be a barometer for how engaged we are in activities that are meaningful to us.
3. No matter what you believe, stress is always bad for you.
A study tracked 30,000 adults over eight years. The study asked participants the simple question: “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” They also tracked death records for these people over the eight-year period. The outcome: there was a 43% increase in death only in the group with the belief that stress was bad for them. Those who didn’t believe it was harmful experienced no negative effects on their health. This research suggests that only believing that stress is bad for you actually makes stress bad for you.
4. Stress is created by circumstances
In another study, researchers analyzed the physiological response of people who were undergoing extreme stress but thought of it in a positive way. The result? They experienced the same physiological response associated with extreme joy. Even though the stress response was activated, the negative physiological effects commonly associated with the stress response, such as the constriction of blood vessels commonly associated with heart attack, were overridden. This research suggests your thoughts about the stress response actually matter more than the circumstances creating the response.
5. The stress response in our body is always harmful
In yet another study, research found that people have a “built in mechanism for stress resilience.” The stress response in the body activates the neuro-hormone Oxytocin associated with increased empathy and connection. It is encouraging you to reach out to others instead of bottling everything up. Your personal connections to the people you love and the simple act of giving to others can actually antidote the other negative effects of stress.
6. Stress is inevitable- there is little you can do to prevent or eliminate it
All of this research points to the idea that it is ultimately up to you to create your own relationship with stress in your life. Being “stressed out” is not an inevitable part of life. There are many stress reduction techniques you can employ to combat the symptoms of stress, including meditation, qi gong and yoga. One of the best stress reduction techniques is breath awareness. Your breath can be a great indicator and reminder to bring awareness to your relationship with stress. It serves as a great reminder to view your stress response positively and transform the negative effects.
So it turns out that the scary monster under your bed really isn’t all that scary after all, as long as you learn to make friends with your stress monster. Understand that it is there because something is demanding change; it is something you care about and that is giving your life meaning. It turns out it is only bad for you if you believe it is and you actually have the ability to transform the negative physiological response by viewing it as something positive. Your stress is also asking you to reach out to others; it is calling you to listen to your heart and practice empathy and compassion.
How do you put all of this into practice? Listen to your breath. The next time you are feeling stressed out or your Spire device alerts you your breathing is off; remember you have the choice to decide how you feel about your stress and what you do about it. Put your attention on your breath and your body and most importantly your heart and then move forward. Remember how you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress. When you choose to view your stress response as a helpful indicator instead of a sneaky monster under the bed you choose courage, you trust in yourself and you create a better life.
To learn more on the above studies see Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk: How to Make Friends with Your Stress.