Stress doesn’t have to stress you out. Really? Absolutely. Learn how to manage stress and master turning stressful situations into opportunities for growth.
Most of us think of “stress” as something to avoid. What we don’t realise is that not all stress is bad. In fact, we depend on some stress symptoms to get things done daily.
Eustress – Stress Spurs Positive Action
Say your boss has just given you an important project to handle — it’s something you’ve been waiting for. Stoked by the news, your heart starts beating faster as ideas race through your mind. You’re not having a heart attack — you’re experiencing positive stress or eustress, which gives you energy and motivation to get the task done.
We experience eustress too when we fall in love — it spurs us to think of ways to strike up a conversation and get to know that girl or boy better. Eustress helps with managing stress and is believed to increase mental alertness, awareness and even improves both physical health and mental health.
Scientists have even found that short bouts of stress can keep our brains alert and improve mental performance.
But stress turns nasty when there’s too much of it. If the boss keeps piling on work or your attempts to woo someone are repeatedly rebuffed, the good stress can become too much to bear, resulting in negative stress or distress. You no longer feel motivated as there seems to be no end in sight.
Instead of merely learning how to cope with stress with relaxation techniques, master stress. Here are three methods to help you be a master of stress.
#1 Make Stress Your Friend
Here’s a simple trick to deal with stress: regard it as a friend, not a foe.
A 2011 study, which tracked 30,000 American adults over eight years, found that those who experienced a lot of stress had a 43 percent increased risk of dying but this applied only to those who believed that the stress was harmful to their health.
Those who experienced a large amount of stress but did not view it as harmful did not face the same mortality statistic. In other words, how people perceived stress made a big difference.
As health psychologist Kelly McGonigal explained in this TED Talk: when you view a stressful situation as a harmful one, your heart rate goes up and your blood vessels constrict. If you feel this way often, the prolonged or chronic stress can harm your heart, lower your general immunity, and even bring on depression and suicidal thoughts.
But when you regard stress as useful and the experience as an opportunity to learn and grow, your body’s stress response changes: the blood vessels stay relaxed even if the heart rate is elevated.
And remember, even positive life changes like your first job or marriage can give you a little stress due to unfamiliarity and anxiety. These new experiences give us the opportunity to step out of our comfort zone, develop personally and learn new skills. In the process, we also become more aware of our strengths and areas for improvements.
#2 Build Up Your Capacity for Stress
You can also get a better handle on stress with practice. Each time we face a stressful or difficult situation, our brains rewire to remember and learn from it, said Ms McGonigal.
This “stress inoculation” helps us develop resistance against the effects of stressors, by preparing us in advance to handle stressful events successfully. Research shows that most people draw on difficult past experiences to cope with their problems.
Pilots, astronauts, soldiers, elite athletes and emergency responders are regularly put through simulated drills to handle highly stressful situations effectively.
Singaporean Felix Tan, who summited Mount Everest in May 2016, prepared for the ascent by doing even more demanding climbs, albeit on lower mountains, in China. He also honed his mental stamina with training sessions that lasted more than 21 hours, based on advice that past Everest climbers had given him.
“When I was very tired, I told myself I can slow down but I cannot stop. I told myself I’ve gone through worse … more physically demanding climbs. When you think back and tell yourself ‘I’ve done this before’, you can draw a lot of strength from it,” he said.
#3 Reach Out to Help Others
Believe it or not but we all have an in-built response system for stress relief. When we’re stressed, our brains emit a neuro-hormone, oxytocin. Researchers have found that oxytocin increases our trust in others, and compels us to tell others how we feel when we’re stressed. The more we reach out, the more oxytocin is released, which helps a person recover faster from the stress symptoms.
Perhaps more surprisingly, is that reaching out — not for help but to help — also increases a person’s stress tolerance. Researchers from the University of Buffalo showed that every major stress event increased a person’s risk of death by 30 percent but when the individual also reported high rates of helping others, this risk was cancelled.
This suggests that the act of caring for others while being in a stressed state can act as a buffer against stress-induced mortality. A more recent study confirmed that brief periods of helping others can help people to cope with their daily stress.
So, the next time you feel stressed, a trip to a nursing home or animal shelter might just help you breathe a little easier and lower your stress levels.
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