Stress has become the ever-present evil demon that will inevitably cause us all to either suffer heart attacks or just curl up into little balls, never to be functional again. The truth is, stress is just part of modern life. If we’re not stressed out about our jobs, our relationships or our kids, we’re stressing about the news or other people’s problems. Here’s the thing though: stress isn’t supposed to be an inherently bad thing that we assume will kill us one day.
Our bodies’ stress responses are actually meant to save us from the things that could kill us. Back in the day (like a couple hundred years ago) our own fight or flight response was the only thing separating us from being killed by a grizzly bear or a lion or another human. You needed your body to respond to a stressful situation by kicking into high gear, pumping that adrenaline, increasing those glucose levels and constricting your blood vessels. That’s how you would escape the present danger. Stress responses aren’t so bad when they’re saving your life.
When stress was about fighting or evading predators, your body would typically have time afterward to let everything go back to normal and recover. We don’t get that luxury anymore. Since our stresses are constant, there’s no recovery time and our bodies are constantly trying to save our lives. And it’s exactly as exhausting as it sounds.
You can trick your brain into using that response to your advantage though. Gillian Mandich, a happiness researcher at the University of Western Ontario, says that you can retrain yourself to look at stressful situations in a positive light.
‘When we think about stress, we often think of it as a negative thing,’ she told The Social, ‘There’s actually different kinds of stress and stress can be good for us in certain situations. There’s this thing called ‘eustress’ and that’s positive stress — so when you’re starting a new job or maybe you’re getting married or having a baby — and that stress helps to improve your performance, gives you energy, allows you to cope in that situation.’ Mandich says that we can trick our bodies into thinking negative stress (or ‘distress’) is this positive kind, simply by framing our stress responses as excitement in our minds.
‘What’s really cool about our brain is that every time we have a stressful situation, our brain figures out how to cope and adapt to it,’ she said, ‘So when you cope in a positive way, it patterns your brain, so the next time you’re in a stressful situation, it will go and it will do the same behaviour. So what we can do when we’re feeling stressed is start to look at the situation and reframe it in a different way.’
Mandich suggests that when you feel your heart rate increase or notice other signs of a stress response during a situation, you can consciously think to yourself ‘That means I’m excited’ and train your brain to think positively in situations that would normally stress you out. This mindset will not only improve your performance the first time you do it, it will make thinking that way easier every subsequent time.
So it’s time to stop dreading stress and take control of it. It’s not going to kill us if we don’t let it.