When we think of stress, we immediately associate it with negative emotions. Difficult circumstances, pending deadlines, overworking, big life changes—most kinds of stress exhausts us. Chronic stress can be damaging to our bodies in the long run, affecting your physical and mental health and causing insomnia, anxiety, high blood pressure and even cardiovascular diseases. But you will be surprised to also know that not all stress is necessarily harmful.
Eustress, or positive stress, can be beneficial and sometimes even necessary. What does positive stress feel like? Think about the butterflies you feel before a first date, the excitement of riding a roller-coaster, the nervousness before the interview for your dream job, or the restless anticipation before your wedding day—these are all examples of eustress. Positive stress is the stress response to something that is exciting to you, or when you can react well to a challenge. Stepping out of your comfort zone and taking up new challenges can trigger positive stress, which in turn can help you achieve your goals. A study by the University of Berkeley published in 2013 found that moderate amounts of positive stress can even increase your brain function, improve memory and increase your attention span. Positive stress can motivate and excite you, and increase your self-confidence.
Here is how you can reap the benefits of positive stress without allowing it to harm you in the long run.
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- Identify how to differentiate between your stressors Positive stress is a temporary experience, which means that after your challenge is over, you should feel elated about your achievement. Research published in Psychoneuroendocrinology in 2013 shows that when you perceive a stressor as a “threat”, it creates anxiety and leads to distress, or negative stress. But when you believe something to be a challenge, it can become a learning opportunity. The difference lies between when you “want to” do something, and when you “have to” do something. You should feel energised and restless, rather than simply overwhelmed. If you respond to a situation with only helplessness and anxiety, or if you feel that way constantly to the point that you are fatigued or losing sleep, then you might be experiencing chronic stress.
- Change how you think about stress itself In her TED talk titled How to Make Stress Your Friend, psychologist Kelly McGonigal highlighted a study published in 2012 in Health Psychology that showed that your view of stress impacts your health more than stress itself. In this study carried out with 29,000 subjects over 8 years, it was found that if you think stress is always bad for you, then it will impact you negatively. But if you can reframe your thinking and consider stress as something that challenges you and energises you, then not only will you succeed at these challenges, but you can also increase your lifespan.
- Don’t pretend that stress does not exist Denial is a natural psychological coping mechanism. But trying to deny your stress will reinforce your fears. Instead, take a deep breath, recognise your feelings and try to understand where they are coming from. Identifying your stressors and addressing them will help you to deal with them on a day-to-day basis, so that they do not pile up.
- Focus on positive self-talk In a study published by Harvard Medical School, it was seen that when participants were told that their performance improves under pressure, it actually did improve by almost a third of their previous output. Focusing on the positive side of your challenges will change how capable you feel about dealing with them. Try to focus on your wins, be it in your personal or professional life. Don’t catastrophise before you have actually tried something out. Instead of thinking “I cannot do this because I have never done this before”, try to tell yourself “It’s an opportunity to learn something new.” But remember, stress is a personal response: while your friend might be happy to go bungee jumping, if the idea causes debilitating fear in you, then it is not the activity for you.
- Break down big hurdles into smaller challenges Doing a challenging task can help you build your necessary skill set. You don’t have to exhaust yourself trying to keep up to the demands of stress. Break down a bigger task into smaller tasks to figure out an easy way to do them. For example, if the idea of moving cities is causing you stress, make a list of doable things like searching for a place to live, looking up exciting activities in your new city, packing your bags, etc. Each activity that you tick off your list will provide you with a sense of achievement.
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