“Set peace of mind as your highest goal, and organize your life around it.” ~ Brian Tracy
”Befriend stress? That feeling that makes me perform poorly, perspire profusely and pant impolitely? Are you nuts? No, I do not want to befriend stress, thanks all the same!”
If that’s what you’re thinking, then I really want to encourage you to read on and keep an open mind. This article has the potential to benefit you more than you know. It may even save your life. After reading what I have to say, you can still decide to keep your old beliefs about stress. It’s totally up to you.
I want to be upfront with you – my mission with this month’s article is to radically change your relationship to stress. I want you to love it and look forward to it. I also want you to feel much less of it. That might sound like rather a tall order, but I am confident that what I share with you in this next few paragraphs can do just that. I’m going to show you that stress is mostly mindset – a set of beliefs that can be empowering or disempowering – and that by changing your core beliefs and assumptions about stress – you can profoundly transform your life.
In addition, I promise you that developing a new appreciation for stress will allow you to feel more inner peace than you currently believe is possible. It will allow you to shine and succeed in situations that have previously caused you to flounder or fail.
Learning to enjoy stress, as well as believing that it is a positive force in your life, will drastically alter your health outcomes, both mentally and physically.
What is Stress?
Stress is broadly defined as any situation “in which environmental demands, internal demands, or both, tax or exceed the adaptive resources of an individual, social system, or tissue system.”
And stress can be easily recognised from the tell-tale set of physiological responses, including:
- Rapid heart rate
- Rapid and shallow breathing
- Pale or flushed skin
- Increased perspiration
- Dry mouth (saliva decreases)
- Tunnel vision (pupils dilate)
- Nausea or loss of appetite
- Trembling and shaking
- Anger or irritability
- Muscle tension
- Heightened senses
Why We Get Stressed…
The ‘Stress Response’ is an evolutionary survival response initiated by your brain, which releases stress hormones that change the chemistry of your body. It’s commonly referred to as the “fight or flight response” because it prepares you to run from, or fend off your attacker.
First of all, it’s important to understand that this system was designed many, many, many thousands of years ago, when humans were getting chased by bears and had to outsmart lions. In deed, long before humans were at the top of the food chain, many carnivores considered us a tempting treat. So, to deal with this rather stressful environment, our brain evolved a simple, effective system to get us out of danger quickly – and it worked well enough to survive the test of time.
Basically, as soon as we perceive a threat, the Stress Response is initiated and your nervous system kicks into gear. Your physiology transforms in an instant and your thoughts and emotions often follow suit. Your thinking brain is overridden – so rational, conscious thought can be hard to access. Basically, we react rather than choose. And the whole thing happens really quickly – before you even know what’s happening. Suddenly, your body is experiencing stress. And this, hopefully, gets you out of trouble.
What’s meant to happen next is that the stress response switches off and you can resume normal activity – called “rest and digest.” You’ll see this happen on any nature doco where a gazelle gets chased by a lion. If it gets away, it will stop, look around, shake out all the excess adrenalin, then resume munching on grass. Danger over, resume normal activity.
It certainly seems like we are stuck with stress – but are we?
My Own Experience of Stress
Seems like, if I look back over my life, I was not given the skills to deal with stress, or perform in stressful conditions. As a university student, I definitely suffered from performance anxiety in exams. I felt a lot of pressure to do well and get high grades, and I feared the possibility of failing or not being in the top students in my class. Prior to an exam, my heart would race, my breathing would quicken, I would get a kind of tunnel vision and hyper-alertness, I would not feel like eating, I would get physically tense, and I would get caught up in negative thoughts about what my final result would be. I disliked applying for jobs and going for interviews for the same reasons. I felt stressed in these situations, and didn’t know how to deal with it.
Stress has arisen in almost every area of my life: personal relationships, finances, career, health, and my living situation. I’ve experienced major stress in my family relationships, including losing loved ones and dealing with death and dying, and in friendships. I’ve felt stressed as a result of workplace bullying on more than one occasion. I’ve felt stressed in traffic jams, on phone calls, and at Christmas lunches. Sometimes, before an important event, I would even get stressed about what to wear. My “clothing crises” happened infrequently, but always caused me to be frazzled, distressed and late.
To be truthful, I hated stress, and I was convinced that, if I was stressed, it’s because I was about to fail. And it’s taken me most of my adult life to transform my relationship with stress – to the point now, where I actually look forward to it, enjoy it, and feel much less of it.
What’s Your Experience of Stress?
As you can see, I could easily keep thinking examples, big and small, where I have been impacted by stress. And I imagine that you are somewhat similar. You’ve probably stressed about the past and worried about the future. You’ve probably experienced stress in many, if not all areas of your life at different points. Would that be true?
And perhaps, like my younger self, you have not been on friendly terms with stress. Maybe, you’ve wished you didn’t ever have to feel stress? Maybe you have been stressed about getting stressed – you know, loathed or feared the stress response itself – been anxiously awaiting the first signs of it, and become concerned when you noticed your body telling you you were starting feel stressed. Perhaps you have worried and even said to yourself “stop stressing” or “all this stress is bad for my health.” Perhaps you have even feared that your stress might one day kill you if you are unable to control it.
Stress: Three Big Challenges
1. Stress is on the Increase Worldwide
While we have been inundated with public health campaigns about stress, stressed humans are on the increase. In fact, we are facing an epidemic of stress. For example, in a recent Gallop poll that surveyed 146 countries, 40% of people had felt stressed in the past 24 hours. And the negative experience index shows there is a trend of increasing stress across the globe.
Evidently, we are living in stressful times, and we need some new ways of managing our stress.
2. Our Coping Strategies May Make Things Worse
On top of this, some of the ways we are dealing with stress leave a lot to be desired, including the use of pharmaceutical medication, alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs, anger, aggression, avoidance, bullying, social withdrawal, self-harm and suicide. Unfortunately, these strategies are increasingly common. Which kinda suggests that, colectively, we don’t know how to deal well with stress.
I used to manage a lot of my stress with drinking, withdrawal and anger. Not great strategies, I’m sure you will agree. But coping strategies give us the ability to impact on the amount and intensity of stress we experience – so having an arsenal of effective techniques should be a high priority in this increasingly stressful world.
3. Stress Can Lead to Chronic Physical and Mental Health Issues
We are reminded again and again that stress is bad for our health. Stress, we’re told, can lead to insomnia, irritability, anxiety, depression, heart attacks, stroke, burnout, breakdowns and premature death, to name but a few potential consequences of chronic stress. The health impacts of stress are a serious concern, especially if stress is on the increase.
So given how pervasive and awful stress really is, how can I justify asking you to befriend it? Well, my big fat promise to you is that if you can make a few simple mindset shifts, and start cozying up with your stress, you’ll be able to:
1. Radically change your experience of stress;
2. Avoid the potential negative health impacts of stress; and
3. Enjoy and thrive as a result of embracing your stress.
“When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.” ~ Peter Marshall
Three Immediate Mindset Shifts You Can Make
1. Stress is Good For My Health
A few years back, there was a very interesting study conducted by the University of Wisconsin. The study involved 186 million American adults, and at the beginning of the study they asked each of these individuals a question:
“During the past 12 months, how much effect has stress had on your health – a lot, some, hardly any, or none?”
Out of the total respondents, some 33.7% (around 30,000) U.S. adults perceived that stress affected their health a lot or to some extent.
Then after a number of years they looked at health data and death rates for this population. They discovered something quite amazing.
Those who believed that stress is harmful for their health and had experienced a lot of stress had an increased likelihood of physical and mental health problems and…wait for it… a 43% increased risk of dying.
Meanwhile, those who experienced a lot of stress but did not believe it to be bad for their health, were no more likely to die! In fact, they had the lowest likelihood of dying out the entire group.
The researchers concluded that “high amounts of stress and the perception that stress impacts health are each associated with poor health and mental health. Individuals who perceived that stress affects their health and reported a large amount of stress had an increased risk of premature death.”
In short, people do not die from stress itself, but from the belief that stress is bad for them.
2. My Stress Response is Evidence of My Resilience
The stress response (as described at the beginning of this article) is a set of physiological changes that happen in the body, caused by hormones your brain releases in response to your perception of a stressor.
Like I said earlier, I had always seen stress as a bad thing – a sign that I wasn’t coping:
Stress ≠ Resilience
But a few years ago, I had a mindset shift and began to see that the stress response is actually the inception of resilience. That’s because I came to understand stress better, and I learned that the stress response is simply your body calling forth all its resources so that you can rise to meet the challenges, danger or obstacles that you are experiencing. If we are stressed that’s an indication our body has rapidly transformed, becoming charged up, focused and alert, in order to help us to cope. We have been reading stress wrong all this time:
Stress = Resilience.
In a study at Harvard, the researchers put groups of people through stress tests (really stress-inducing environments) but before the participants started the stress test, they were broken into 2 groups. One group was shown a ‘stress-is-good’ video explaining that they’re about to enter the stress test, and they would, feel all the physiological effects of stress, and then went on to explain how those physical responses were beneficial and would help them cope with the stress. The second group was told the exact opposite in a ‘stress-is-bad’ video.
What were the findings?
Well, naturally, the first group performed better than the second, had less anxiety and felt more confident. But there was one unexpected finding. When exposed to the stress test, those who had been told stress was unhelpful showed constriction of their blood vessels, whilst those who viewed stress as helpful, well their blood vessels stayed open and relaxed.
Now, not sure if you are aware, but blood vessel constriction is a pre-cursor to coronary disease and many other negative health outcomes.
But the ability to experience stress and maintain open, relaxed blood vessels, well that has no negative health implications, and is in fact the same physiology we experience when we feel both joy and courage. 
Kinda amazing huh?
3. Stress is My Friend
If stress is actually our body/mind rising up to help us cope, then surely stress is our friend not our enemy?
In some similar research, Stanford Psychology Professor Alia Crum found that people who saw a ‘stress-is-good’ video prior to a stress test still produced the same amount of cortisol but changing their perception of stress helped them to produce more DHEA which, in turn, helped them to offset the negative effects of stress.
Another finding was that those who watched the ‘stress-is-good’ video had less inflammation than those who watched the ‘stress-is-bad’ video. Inflammation is your body’s way of preparing you to heal from potential wounds. Again, this is useful if we have been attacked by an animal and have been injured, but unnecessary inflammation can create negative health outcomes in otherwise healthy people.
So, the obvious takeaway here is to shift your fight and flight to excite and delight.
Make the effort to see stressful events as a challenge you can overcome, rather than something to avoid or fear.
4. We Control the Stress Response
Have you ever wondered why some people find exams stressful and others don’t? Or why some people are cool and calm around snakes, while others experience panic or terror.
The impact of stress depends on our appraisal of the stressor. It’s our mindset that mediates our response to it.
Another group of researchers developed a model that says our stress is moderated by two primary appraisals:
1. How susceptible do we feel (risk)
2. How severe is the event (threat) 
Increased perception of risk has been associated with increased psychological distress.
You can see from the complicated diagram below, that there are actually four (4) unique nervous system responses we can choose from – Calm, Alert, Stressed, Frozen – and how we perceive the situation will determine how our body/mind responds.
5. Two Types of Stress
There are actually two types of stress: Eustress and Distress. Or good stress and bad stress.
Eustress is a positive form of stress having a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance and emotional well-being.
Meanwhile, distress is a state of perceived danger or desperate need. 
The really interesting thing is that, physiologically, these two states are almost identical. Same bodily responses I described above are common to both Eustress and Distress. But the person’s experience is radically different. Having experimented with this myself a lot over the past few years, I can tell you that with Eustress you don’t feel stressed (except maybe in the initial moments of the stress response). Instead you feel energised, alive, excited, switched on, awake, alert, and ready to overcome any challenges.
I was recently chatting with a friend about stress and he was telling me how stressed he gets when he has to deliver public speaking, so when he had to give a talk one time, he decided to use Beta Blockers (a medication that blocks adrenalin) to control his blood pressure and reduce his experience of stress. He said it was the worst idea, because he felt completely flat, disengaged and lacking energy through the whole talk. ‘It was like I couldn’t get motivated, I was missing the focus and energy that stress normally gives me.” His talk actually suffered and his performance was lessened because he was not feeling normal, healthy, motivating stress. If this is a continuum, then it should be obvious that I am trying my hardest to shift you further towards the eustress experience of stress and away from distress wherever possible.
We can’t eliminate all stressors and we probably don’t want to. But I believe there is much we can do to eliminate distress and increase our experience of eustress – by befriending stress and using it to enhance our focus, performance and enjoyment of life’s challenges.
Practical Action Steps for Embracing Stress
- Stop beating yourself up for feeling stress, and accept that stress is part of a rich and fulfilling life. If you feel nervous or stressed, then you are probably taking a risk in the direction of your dreams, or doing something that matters. If you are not feeling stress, then you are probably existing in a small, safe and very boring comfort zone.
- Release any fear associated with stress, and shift your belief to one that sees stress as good for you; adopt the belief that stress is your friend and is here to support you to rise to the challenge.
- Rename and reframe your stress as excitement, enjoyment, or expansion
- Be mindful of and change your language: Stop saying “I’m stressed out” or “I’m busy” and start saying “I am enjoying the challenge” or “I’ve got a full and interesting day ahead of me”
- When you notice the physical signs of stress, practice deep breathing and relaxation strategies so that you can convert stress to focused mental and physical energy. Then shift your attention to the present moment and the next important action. Just do that and keep breathing.
- Start trusting in two things: yourself and the Universe. You know how to cope; you can rise to whatever challenges you are facing; and the Universe has your back, it is always supporting you, and only giving you challenges that you are ready to face
- Use stress as a resource for meeting the demands of your day; recognise that your body is creating more energy and be grateful for that extra support
- Reach out to others, help them and maintain your social network; supporting others has been shown to reduce our stress levels and increase resilience. 
- Practice being mindful of your stream of thinking and unhooking from “What if…? and “If only…” thinking (these lead to anxiety, panic and depression)
- Focus on what you can control – if you get stuck on the M1 in a traffic jam (like I did the other day) – recognise there’s probably nothing you can do, so relax, put some music on and enjoy it. If the computer system collapses (like it did to me the other day) – accept it has happened, do what you can to resolve it, and refocus on other meaningful activities.
Stress can make us feel awful, or it can make us feel more intensely alive  – it’s up to us.
In conclusion, it’s my belief that stress is one part automatic-physiological-reaction and nine parts mindset. We can’t control the physical reaction; we can only observe it and choose to align ourselves with it. In time, as we learn to manage stress with mindset, we can begin to influence and be less reactive to our old “stressors” because we start to view them, not as stressors, but as either wonderful, exciting challenges that reflect our rich and fulfilling life opportunities or as “small stuff” – and we never sweat the small stuff, right? 
“The first step in becoming a more peaceful person is to have the humility to admit that, in most cases, you’re creating your own emergencies. Life will usually go on if things don’t go according to plan.” ~ Richard Carlson
 (Monat & Lazarus, 1991)
 Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality Abiola Keller, Kristin Litzelman, Lauren E. Wisk, Torsheika Maddox, Erika Rose Cheng, Paul D. Creswell, and Whitney P. Witt
 (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Wenzel, Glanz, & Lerman, 2002).
 (Schwartz, Lerman, Miller, Daly, & Masny, 1995)
 The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal
 Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (And It’s All Small Stuff), Richard Carlson
Hey, I hope that you are now viewing your stress differently. My intent for you is that next time you encounter something you would normally find “stressful”, and when you notice the physical signs of the stress response, that you remind yourself that stress is good, stress is helping you, and stress is a sign that you are innately resilient and able to cope.
P.S. Questions, comments, personal stories – please share them below so we can all grow together.
The Mindset Mentor
Michelle McClintock is a Life & Business Mindset Strategist who specialises in transforming your mindset so you can experience more peace, happiness, success and fulfilment.
Michelle has 30-years experience in personal development, as a Psychologist, Facilitator, Speaker and Results Coach. She loves it when people get new insights that spark massive growth and positive transformation.
Through her writing and videos she makes complex coaching and psychology ideas easy to digest and assimilate, so you can create your ultimate life.