Stress Management

3 Ways to Get Stress Working for You

We have all had times when we scrambled at the last minute to finish an assignment for work or burned the midnight oil to complete a final paper for a class. As the deadline approaches, our hearts beat faster, our palms begin to sweat, we feel uneasy, worried and even fearful. Stressful situations induce anxiety.

Feeling acutely anxious too often may require treatment but occasionally feeling anxious and stressed out is completely normal. Sitting with anxiety and stress may feel uncomfortable, but it is also necessary for motivation, change and advancement.

Here are three ways to harness the power of anxiety and stress to increase your productivity and make forward movements in your life.

1. Set several small, achievable goals.

When you feel stressed or anxious, your brain is hard-wired to motivate you to achieve your goals. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, when we experience threats, the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped structure located deep in the brain, triggers stress and anxiety responses. When your fight-or-flight response is activated by the amygdala various chemicals are released by the brain into your body. Norepinephrine and cortisol boost your perception and reflexes, while endorphins, serotonin and dopamine help relax and calm you down.

Importantly, dopamine has been shown to have the added effect of inducing motivation. Once you actually reach your objectives, your body gives you a generous boost of dopamine so you feel accomplished, rewarded and just plain good.

To continue experiencing that pleasurable feeling, create a chain of dopamine releases when feeling anxious or stressed. First, set many small, achievable goals for yourself before you begin to work. Once you complete the first goal on your list, you will feel amazing and, more importantly, motivated to work on the next goal. Before you know it, your productivity will be through the roof, and you’ve just tricked yourself into accomplishing much more than you thought possible.

Related: Forget Big Goals. Take Baby Steps for Small, Daily Wins.

2. Change your relationship to stress.

When we hear about stress in the news, it is often in the context of reducing or coping with stress. Instead of teaching us to take advantage of stress and anxiety to improve our lives, the media has taught us to view stress as a horrible disease that should be eliminated. However, in a study conducted by Yale University, perceiving stress as a positive force in your life may actually lead you to perform better at work or school.

The study was conducted at a large investment company in New England where layoffs were occurring. Thus, employees were in a near-constant state of anxiety and panic regarding their jobs. To test the hypothesis that perceptions of stress can change behaviors, the researchers first split up the employees randomly into three groups.

Group 1 watched videos that showed how stress can be performance-enhancing. One especially uplifting clip showed basketball star LeBron James making a clutch free throw with a message that said, “Stress brings out the best in people.” Group 2 watched videos that suggested stress can be crippling. One such video clip showed LeBron James missing a free throw along with a message that said, “Stress can cause people to crumble.” The last group served as the control group and did not watch any videos.

The researchers found that employees in Group 1 experienced significantly fewer stress-related physical symptoms such as headaches, backaches, muscle tension and insomnia compared to the other groups. They also significantly improved in subsequent productivity assessments. Therefore, by adopting a positive mindset to stress, you can reduce the chances of experiencing negative physical or psychosomatic impairments and increase your productivity.

Next time you find yourself overwhelmed, wishing that your stress would just go away, try practicing radical acceptance on your anxiety-triggering situation and start changing your relationship to stress.

Related: How Successful People Deal With Stress

3. Leave problems requiring creative solutions for last.

When your to-do list is overflowing with tasks to be completed, it is easy to become paralyzed by inaction. In situations like these, Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology at George Mason University, suggests utilizing mindlessness and anxiety to get the wheels turning.

In his book The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self -- Not Just Your 'Good' Self -- Drives Success And Fulfillment, he writes, “You are likely familiar with the idea of an aha moment, that burst of insight that suddenly solves a problem or delivers a relevant idea when it's least expected. There is, it would seem, something inventive about loose, unfocused attention.”

He suggests that your best ideas come out while doing tasks that are productive yet don’t require intense concentration. He then continues, “In situations when danger is a possibility but the cues might be obscure, complicated or uncertain, anxiety prevails over positivity. In such cases, anxious people quickly discover solutions.”

Above all, then, anxiety will help you solve your problems quickly. So how do you incorporate Kashdan’s advice into your own life?

When you don’t know where to start with your to-do list, try prioritizing your workload based on how much creativity is required for each task, starting with the most mindless activities. These could be anything from completing administrative duties to filling out paperwork. Then, move on to tasks that need a bit more attention and resourcefulness, like organizing your desk or sending important emails.

Last, when your anxiety levels are at their peak, tackle the projects requiring the most creativity and concentration, like creating innovative solutions to problems at work or developing proposals for new projects to work on. You may have come up with some great ideas while completing the mindless assignments! By organizing your work schedule based on the beneficial side effects of anxiety and stress, you will set yourself up for success.

Related: How You're Killing Your Own Creativity (Infographic)