Stress gets a bad rap, with most people blaming it for a host of ailments, including heart diseases, insomnia, diabetes as well as the all-pervasive burnout. In the last decade, research, however, suggests that moderate amounts of stress may have powerful benefits. The stress response, also known as fight-or-flight, is designed for survival mode. It causes us to react when something potentially threatening happens—to meet the challenge and learn from it.
And yes, chronic and intense stress has a negative effect, but studies also show that moderate, short-lived stress primes the brain for improved performance, along with a bump in alertness and memory.
In order to consider stress as friend not foe, you have to change the way you think about it. Spearheading the new paradigm of stress is Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University whose most recent book is The Upside of Stress. She defines stress broadly, “as what arises when something you care about is at stake.” This can include loss, anxiety and even suffering.
Stress and the meaning we ascribe to it are inextricably linked, she says. You don’t stress about what you don’t care about. On the other hand, beliefs can inform outcome. If you expect stress to be negative, it will, but if you see stress with an appreciative lens it can transform a stressful experience into an exciting one.
Here are three ways to harness the power of stress.
3 positive effects of stress
1. Boosts your motivation
Stress has an “order of magnitudes” type of quality. Too much, and you feel overwhelmed and paralyzed, too little and you become complacent. But just the right amount is a galvanizing force that can go a long to kickstarting a project into gear.
2. Builds resilience
Stress is the mother of resilience. Coping with stress requires top notch problem solving, which in turn boosts confidence. Developing a strong core of resilience helps people feel empowered and more in control of their situations. If you have a self-confident sense that you can get through a rough period—a strong core of competency—you’re less likely to perceive stress as catastrophic.
3. Increases bonding
Stress and bonding go hand in hand. When we are stressed, we often turn to others for support, which fortifies us handle the stress better. This is emblematic of the “tend-and-befriend” stress response, a feminine version of fight-or flight. Oxytocin, a hormone enhanced by social contact and support, modulates the stress response.
Studies suggest a link between stress and increased caring, cooperation, and compassion—especially in women. Stress encourages women to reach out—to talk with someone, to bond, to pool resources and care for others. The tend-and-friend response, like fight-or-flight, is born of the survival instinct. But in tend-and-befriend it function to ensure the protection of offspring.
When stress activates an attunement system, the bonus is enhanced perception, intuition, and self-control. Whereas acute stress can inhibit our ability to see things from another perspective, when stress gets channeled into bonding it makes understanding another perspective much easier. A tend-and-befriend response cultivates social intelligence, bravery and intuition.
Next time a stressful situation occurs, instead of isolating and going it alone try finding hope—and relief—through connection. If you use stress as a catalyst for bonding and attunement, it will help you turn any challenge into an opportunity to go big. Bigger than your own fear—and bigger than other’s fears too, allowing you to overcome obstacles alone you might otherwise feel overwhelmed by.
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