How to better deal with stress & grow faster [3 tips]
To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time. - Leonard Bernstein
Stress is our psychological and physical reactions to the physical and mental strain caused by specific external stimuli (stressors)
It's not stress that is bad but the belief that it is
Chronic stress, no matter how it's perceived, causes serious health effects whereas properly harnessed acute stress enhances your performance and health
First, we need to adopt the right mindset: Instead of avoiding and defending against stress responses, we need to embrace them
Second, you need to find space and time for recovery
Third, struggle is great but too much acute strain isn't optimal either
I'm quite sure you're familiar with one of the following situations: Imagine that you have to give a presentation, persuade a client, ace an exam, or go on a date with your crush - and it's not only very important but the first time you do it. When I think back to similar situations, it immediately hits me how stressed I felt back then.
These experiences were often unpleasant because my body showed an intense stress response, which manifested in various ways: My heart beat faster and stronger, sweat production was increased, my mind was blurred, and I couldn't recall basic concepts.
It's commonly believed that stress is bad and should be avoided. Regarding my past experiences, you might think I would endorse this belief; however, I'm firmly convinced that stress is a good thing, and what's bad about stress is how it's managed and perceived.
In today's article, I will write about the concept of stress, why - from a scientific perspective - it's actually good, and what we need to keep in mind when dealing with stress.
Why stress is good
According to Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, people who experienced a lot of stress in the last year have a 43% increased risk of dying compared to their peers. Yet, that's only true for the people who also believe that stress is harmful. Contrarily, people who experience a lot of stress but don't view stress as harmful not only are less likely to die but also have the lowest risk of dying.
From this, we can infer that it's not stress that is bad but the belief that it is.
Of course, we have to distinguish the different types of stress: Chronic stress, no matter how it's perceived, causes serious health effects whereas properly harnessed acute stress increases brain functioning, boosts our immune system, prepares us for future stressful situations, etc. Hence, we need to stop demonizing and avoiding stress and start learning to properly manage it to prevent ourselves from experiencing chronic stress.
The concept of stress
Before we will dive deeper into the topic of stress management, we need to clarify first what stress actually is and why we experience it.
Basically, stress is our psychological and physical reactions to the physical and mental strain caused by specific external stimuli (stressors). Virtually everything that takes us out of our comfort zone is a stressor. The degree of strain (stress) a stressor triggers varies from person to person: Some people deliver a speech in front of hundreds of people with ease whereas most people would be under extreme strain.
And why do we feel stress?
It's the body's approach to deal with conditions such as threats, challenges, or physical and psychological barriers. These kinds of situations trigger so-called fight or flight responses. As you might have experienced by yourself, most of this magic happens to us without our consent. That's because the sympathetic nervous system as part of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) drives this fight or flight response, and the ANS is mainly working by regulating the body's unconscious actions. Hence, it's rather difficult to directly influence stress reactions.
How to make use of stress
Knowing that stress is a signal for a crucial situation, we can now better re-frame our view of stress:
Stress isn't a bad thing but our perception and improper amounts of it. Acute stress is a sign of a situation of high relevance. Our systems, including the ANS, prepare us to be best prepared for the upcoming challenge and take it seriously.
Experiencing stress can greatly boost your performance and live longer. However, these benefits require us to take a different stance on stress and properly manage it.
First, we need to adopt the right mindset: Instead of avoiding and defending against stress responses, we need to embrace them. Your heart is beating stronger? Your breath is faster? Your palms are sweaty? That's your body helping you to rise to a crucial challenge. It's your autonomous systems achieving peak performance. From now on, you need to be grateful for these stress responses since they will make you perform better.
Second, frequent acute stress without rest will lead to chronic stress. And chronic stress is severely bad. Hence, you need to find space and time for recovery. Not only the brightest minds but also the strongest, fastest, and most tenacious people spend their time either pursuing an activity with ferocious intensity or engaging in complete restoration and recovery. This approach prevents burnout and cognitive fatigue and simultaneously fosters breakthrough ideas and world-record performances.
Third, the struggle is great but too much acute strain isn't optimal either. If you're feeling too aroused or even anxious, you should rather aim for something less challenging. You should aim for just-manageable challenges, which manifest when you take on something that makes you feel a little out of control but not quite anxious or overly aroused.