How to Deal with Stress and Use it to Your Advantage

Our stress response can be used to help us through difficult moments, but stress overall is more bad than good, so we must learn how to effectively manage it.

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Stress has been getting a makeover of late. From Ted talks to health news alerts, there’s been no shortage of online content promoting the benefits of stress in recent years. The view that stress can be beneficial does have merit, but before you consider the pressure at work and at home as a blessing, realize that the benefit only exists in some circumstances, so it’s important that we learn how to effectively deal with stress.

Before examining the good about stress let’s look at the bad. Routine stress can “contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, [and] diabetes” among other physical and mental illnesses. But stress can go beyond our health.

Stress can derail careers and it can ruin marriages. Stress can suck the joy from our lives and keep us from ever reaching fulfillment. Learning how to deal with stress, particularly within the hustle and bustle of the modern world, is therefore not only a good idea, but one of the most important life skills we can develop.

I write on this topic from experience. Stress was the precursor to the toughest period of my life. I was trying to manage living on my own for the first time, paying for school while working a full-time job, and dealing with mounting debt when I simply broke down. A 6-month period of consistent stress led to almost a decade of mental and physical ailments that I’ve only recently overcome.

In case it’s not clear yet, stress is not something to be taken lightly. We should not accept it as a normal part of life, though we can use it to our advantage in some cases, as we’ll get into. In order for us to learn how to effectively deal with stress, we must first understand the nature of stress.

Understanding the Stress Response

The release of stress hormones is the body’s response to stressful situations. These hormones cause the heart to start racing and breathing to become shorter and quicker. The bodies then tenses up as it enters fight-or-flight mode. From an evolution standpoint, this response has kept us alive. It prepared us to deal with physical threats, such as man-eating predators.

Nowadays it’s unlikely to encounter a saber-toothed tiger on your way to the grocery store. Or a cave bear while going out for an evening stroll. The kind of daily threats we experience now, for the most part, is bad weather on the weekends or pre-recorded marketing calls during dinner hour. So we humans, with our endless capacity to adapt, have redefined what a stressful situation can be.

A growing stack of papers on our desk becomes a stressful situation. An inbox with 100+ unread messages is stressful. An unruly driver or children that won’t listen when they’re told to clean their room become stress triggers. Surely there are more serious stressors that people deal with but few reach the level of menace posed by living among carnivores with 8-inch canine teeth and a taste for human blood.

The problem with redefining stress is that we cannot escape these new stressors so easily. We have to deal with the same nonsense at work daily, traffic is a rule of life for most cities, and children are around for 18 years (at least). The result is that we operate in a constant state of stress.

The Good Side of Stress

Research has “found that individuals who adopt a ‘stress is enhancing’ mindset in their lives show greater work performance and fewer negative health symptoms than those who adopt a ‘stress-is-debilitating’ lens.”

A different study found that people “who reported a lot of stress and [believed] that stress impacted their health a lot had a 43% increased risk of premature death.”

Clearly there’s a difference in health outcomes based on our perspective of stress. The studies don’t necessarily answer why this might be the case but we are able to see how stress may have positive aspects. If the stress response is meant to put us in a state of peak performance then using it to our advantage makes sense.

How can we effectively deal with stress and use it to our advantage? We can start by controlling our stress rather than having our stress control us. Most people double-down on their worries in stressful situations. They worry about the all the things that have gone wrong rather than what they can do to make them right again. These people neither fight nor choose to take flight, instead they assume a deer in the headlights position and allow the stress to consume them.

If instead we choose to fight, and by that I mean take the actions necessary to overcome our situation, we use our physiological state more wisely. As long as we keep the mindset that the stress response is there to assist us in difficult moments. If we can do this, we’ll more effectively deal with stress and maybe even leave it behind.

The key is to escape our stressors and not simply move on to the next one.

Stress is Not a Long-term Solution

Ultimately, the stress response is meant to keep us out of physical danger and we shouldn’t attempt to redefine it. Stress should only be used as a tool when we cannot sidestep a stressful situation. Chronic stress, no matter our mindset, will do more damage than good in the end.

As for how we better deal with stress in our lives, here’s some tips I’ve found helpful:

  • Exercise – Exercise is one of the most effective tools at clearing our minds of worries and reducing stress. It does this by helping our brain release feel-good neurotransmitters (endorphins).
  • Get More Sleep – Lack of sleep is one of the more common stressors out there. It can negatively affect our memory, judgement, and mood.
  • Don’t Overburden Yourself – Stressors come in all shapes and forms. Often they are caused by our own inability to say ‘No’. We must not take on more than we can chew, and certainly not other people’s burdens.
  • Talk/Write – Sharing our problems wit others, or simply writing them down, has the ability to ease our stress.
  • Take A Break – It’s okay to walk away from our troubles from time to time. It may mean asking our loved ones for space, or asking for time off from work. These may be difficult things to ask based on circumstances but our health and peace of mind are worth it.

The best thing we can do is make an assessment of our stress triggers. What worries us? Is it worth our time? Will it matter in a few years’ time or even a few months’ time?

Often, what we’ll realize after asking ourselves these questions is that the things we worry about aren’t so serious. They are transitory and have no lasting effects. This realization is sometimes all we need to leave our stress behind.

Ready to join the Journey?

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