Think of the last time you felt stressed (for many of us, it might be right now). Maybe your heart’s racing a little bit, your brain wheels won’t stop whirring, your eyes even feel like they might be bugging out of your head a bit. You probably feel like you’re racing toward a finish line you’re not sure you’ll make it to, while something heavy is pumping through your veins. And all the while there’s this looming thought over your head of, “This isn’t good for me! I need to de-stress!”
I’ve got news for you: It doesn’t have to be this way.
At a recent 99U conference, psychologist and researcher Kelly McGonigal shared some research from her upcoming book, The Upside of Stress, that has changed the way she thinks about and experiences stressful situations.
Interestingly, as she dug into the research around stress, McGonigal found that countries where citizens report having higher amounts also tend to have higher GDPs, longer life expectancy, and higher ratings on happiness scales. And she found that people who have higher stress also tend to have more joy, meaning, learning, love, and laughter in their lives.
“Even though we experience stress as distressing, it may actually be a barometer for how engaged you are with things that make you happy,” says McGonigal.
The catch? In order to get these positive benefits from stress as opposed to the well-known negative ones, you have to shift your mindset and think of it in a more positive way. Sounds like a bit of a catch 22, but McGonigal shares a few simple suggestions for putting this into practice.
1. Tie the Stress to Your Values and Goals
When you’re stressed, it often means you’re pushing yourself to grow, working on something you really care about, or otherwise making your mark on the world. But when you’re working on something this important to you, the stress often clouds your vision so you have a hard time seeing the larger goal at hand.
Next time you’re going into a high-pressure situation, try to think about the bigger picture instead of that particular moment. If you’re headed into a job interview, think about why you’re excited about this job and how it relates to the bigger picture of your career. If you’re feeling worried about a project at work, remind yourself why you’re pumped about it, instead of worrying how you’re going to get it done.
In other words, figure out why your stress is worth it, and then focus on that rather than the immediate overwhelming feeling. It will allow the stress to help push you toward that goal, rather than hold you back.
(Side note: If you can’t find anything valuable to tie it to, maybe it’s time to start looking for a new job that’s worth making your heart beat this fast.)
2. Look for the Silver Lining
Of course, not all demanding situations are related to something you’re passionate about. Think, when a loved one passes away, or when a pipe bursts and your house floods, or when you’re going through a breakup. Surely the stress from these events is just, well, stressful—right? No positive angle there.
MgGonigal shared the results of one study, in which participants were asked to think about a difficult experience they had gone through recently or were going through. One group simply ruminated about it, as most of us would. The other group was told to think about this experience as an opportunity to grow or look for something positive that came out of it. While this group still felt stressed thinking about these experiences, their response was more positive, and their outlook greater at the end of the exercise.
Next time you’re going through a difficult experience, look for the small sliver of good or growth that may come out of it. Doing so will keep the stress from overtaking your life.
3. Just Know it Doesn’t Have to Be So Bad
In another study, McGonigal shared, a group of participants were put through a taxing public speaking situation in which they would receive feedback and then have to incorporate it. Before going into this exercise, one group of participants watched a short video explaining how, just as they always believed, stress is bad. Another group, however, watched a video explaining that, contrary to popular belief, stress is not so bad; it is, in fact, enhancing.
Those who went into the situation with this “stress-enhancing” mindset still felt stressed, but they performed better and were more likely to learn and grow from the experience.
So, simply changing your tune about stress and understanding it as a positive force can be enough to change how it affects your life.
“A meaningful life is also a stressful life,” quipped McGonigal at the end of her talk. Next time you come upon a trying situation, don’t let it drag you down—instead, let it propel you forward by using one of these simple tricks to change your mindset.