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Why You Should Embrace Some of That Stress Not all stress is bad. Here are six ways to use it to your advantage

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Most of us assume that stress is bad, and it certainly can be. More than 60 per cent of employees say workplace stress has actually made them sick, and nearly two-thirds of adults report money and work each to be a stressor, indicates the American Psychological Association.

But here's a twist on the topic of stress. Not all stress is bad—and some of it should even be embraced.

The medical definition of stress emphasizes the degree to which it is a normal part of life. According to the Cleveland Clinic, "stress is a normal reaction the body has when changes occur. It can respond to these changes physically, mentally, or emotionally."

Stress is also an essential part of growth. More than 100 years ago, Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, in the educational literature, and Yerkes and Dodson, in the physical performance literature, described how a certain amount of stress is in fact not only beneficial, but also essential, for our development and learning.

Here are 6 ways to benefit from the stress in your life:

Embrace it

Embracing stress, rather than fighting it, can make you stronger, smarter and happier, says Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist and author of The Upside of Stress. Embracing stress as an opportunity to learn and grow can lessen harmful impacts and increase strength, McGonigal says. Other research shows that having a "stress-is-enhancing" mindset improves responses to both challenging and threatening stress, and results in improved well-being. How does this work? Changing how you think about stress changes how you respond to it.

Viewing stress as harmful may lead people to cope in less helpful ways, such as procrastinating, overeating or overdrinking. By contrast, viewing stress as enhancing can lead to more positive emotions, focusing on the upsides, and greater cognitive flexibility.

Coach Yourself...in the Third Person

The way we speak to ourselves, what psychologists refer to as "self-talk," has a profound impact on our experience. Positive self-talk, sometimes called serving as your own inner coach, is a highly effective means of helping oneself through a difficult time. Recent evidence suggests that this is most effective when we address ourselves in the third person. In difficult situations, it seems, speaking in the third person can alleviate stress and invite a greater sense of control. For example, if I were feeling nervous before giving a high-stakes talk, I might tell myself, "Gabriella has prepared thoroughly and she can do this." The third person language creates a distance from our own experience that allows us to feel a greater sense of perspective and control, just as we would feel when thinking of someone else's experience.

Practice Self-compassion

People who are self-compassionate, which means they direct the same care, kindness, and compassion to themselves as they would to others experiencing the same challenges, are protected from negative consequences of stress, such as anxiety, fear of failure, and future avoidance, research shows. What's more, most existing research on the relationship between self-compassion and coping suggests that self-compassion involves thinking about stressful situations in ways that more broadly enhance one's ability to cope with stress.

Focus on Excitement

We often get jitters before positive events like giving a meaningful speech or going to a new social event. In such times, well-meaning others may suggest "calming down" before taking the plunge. But according to Alison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School, this is the wrong approach. In one study, she had participants dive into provocative activities such as singing karaoke in front of strangers. She gave each participant one of three things to say before acting: "I am calm," "I am stressed," or "I am excited." When participants told themselves "I am excited," their heart rate remained accelerated, but their confidence and performance soared. So next time you are diving off that proverbial cliff, tell yourself "I am excited," smile wide, and enjoy the outcome.

Identify the Type of Stress you are Experiencing

There are three main buckets of stress. "Positive stress" is normal and part of healthy development, such as what a child experiences on their first day of school. This type of stress ultimately serves our growth and development. "Tolerable stress" occurs with such things as a non-terminal illness, injury, or the loss of a relationship. With time and support, the stress lessens. "Toxic stress," such as ongoing exposure to violence, is heavy and prolonged. Positive and tolerable stress are normal, and common in life. For many of us, the vast majority of stress we experience is either positive or tolerable. Identifying your stress as such can help reassure you and open you up to embrace it.

Leverage your Support System

In times of stress, almost three in four people turn to friends or family. This is one of the most productive responses we can have to stress. While this is heartening, it still leaves a significant number (25 per cent) of individuals who tend towards isolation in times of stress. Choosing to instead turn toward others is a learnable behavior. The benefits of connections include increased happiness, better health, less loneliness, and even longer lives.

Every day we learn more about the positive value of stress, and how to turn it to our advantage. What we know to date indicates that reaching out to others, reaching in toward oneself, and embracing challenging moments can not only help us manage through stress, but can also enable us to grow and thrive.

Gabriella Rosen Kellerman

MD, Chief Innovation Officer, BetterUp


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