Stress has always received a bad rap. And it’s no wonder – it’s associated with exhaustion, irritation and being overwhelmed.
So when we say, “I’m feeling so stressed right now,” it’s usually met with sympathy.
But experts say some stress can be good for you. Temporary bouts of stress have been linked to increased motivation and improved memory, productivity and overall optimism.
“It’s true that how people usually respond to stress leads to them being ineffective in stressful moments,” says Lauren Moss, a counselling psychologist from Sandton, Johannesburg.
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“But think of how stress motivates a student before an exam – it’s stress that pushes them to prioritise studying over more enjoyable activities.” Instead of thinking of stress as something to get rid of or overcome, it could be used as a tool.
“Moderate levels of stress can have an inoculating function, which leads to higher resilience when we’re faced with new difficulties,” says Lisa Damour, a US-based psychologist and author of Under Pressure.
Here’s how stress can be an advantage and how to tap into its power.
IT BOOSTS MOTIVATION
“Stress can sharpen our focus and create the pressure we need to reach deadlines and attain a certain standard in various areas of our lives,” Moss says. But for stress to be beneficial, it shouldn’t be constant.
“It’s meant to come in seasons. Stress might build as you reach a deadline, but afterwards there should be a period where you can recuperate. When we don’t have rest from stress we become depleted, which in turn makes us less efficient.”
IT HELPS IN DECISION-MAKING
When we experience stress and feel resourceful in being able to tackle the task at hand, making snap decisions becomes easier. “When the pressure is on, you can see which solution will work and you’re more confident to choose which direction to take,” Moss says.
No matter what challenge we’re facing, the stress of it can be used as our competitor, says Sherrie Campbell, a US-based psychologist and author of Loving Yourself.
“We can succumb to our competitor, or we can beat it. When we look for possibilities, the path forward becomes instantly clear.”
IT’S A REMINDER TO TAKE A MOMENT
What do you do when you feel stressed? Go for a run or do a yoga class? Call a friend to vent? Stress can be a good reminder that we need to take care of ourselves, slow down and reach out to those around us. These healthy actions we take can, in turn, make future stressful moments more manageable.
“The prevailing idea in our culture is that stress is bad. But we’re learning that moderate amounts of stress have powerful benefits,” says Daniela Kaufer, an associate professor at the University of
California who studies the biology of stress. “The stress response is designed to help us react when something potentially threatening happens, to help us deal with it and learn from it.”
It also helps raise our self-awareness, Campbell says. Stop expecting stress to go away and choose to learn to work with it. “Stress exposes our vulnerabilities or the areas where we lack insight. This is a gift. When our vulnerabilities are exposed, we’re given direction on where we’re most in need of self-improvement.”
IT UPS PRODUCTIVITY
In stressful situations, such as before a big presentation, your heart beats faster, your breathing speeds up and your muscles tense. “Low-level stressors stimulate the production of brain chemicals called neurotrophins and strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain,” says Dr Richard Shelton of the department of psychiatry at the University of Alabama.
“In fact, this might be the primary mechanism by which exercise (a physical stressor) helps boost productivity.”
In 2013 a joint study by Yale and Cambridge universities found that some of the 400 participants had a stress-is-debilitating mindset while others had a stress-is-enhancing one. Research showed those who agreed with the statement, “Experiencing stress facilitates growth” had better health, greater life satisfaction and superior work performance.
IT BOOSTS BRAINPOWER
A 2020 study by Yale researchers found that when experiencing mild stress, neural connections in the brain not only reached areas in the brain associated with stress, but also the dorsal lateral frontal cortex, an area associated with cognitive function and emotion regulation.
“Our work suggests that brain networks can be harnessed to create a more resilient emotional response to stress,” said Dr Elizabeth Goldfarb of the Yale Stress Centre.
A 2019 study in the British Journal of Health Psychology on how children cope with stress found highly resilient kids with more experience of life stress had less of the stress hormone cortisol when compared with highly resilient kids with less experience of prior life stress.
Remember, you control your response. “While it might not be pleasant, opportunities often arise through stress,” says Richard Sutton, a Joburg-based health and performance educator and author of The Stress Code. “It’s about shifting from chronic stress that’s debilitating to acute stress that’s episodic and liberating. The mind is powerful. Use it.”
Reach out to those around you. Personal interaction facilitates the release of the hormone oxytocin, which provides a buffer against stress by lowering the heart rate, counteracting cortisol, boosting fearlessness and promoting a feeling of connectivity and positivity.
Prioritise your wellbeing. This helps your brain and body to use stress to enhance your focus, decision-making and performance, says Lauren Moss, a counselling psychologist. “A Ferrari with no petrol in the tank is useless.”
Make sure you’re sleeping well, eating well, moving your body, managing pain and illness, and spending time with people you care about and feel safe with. “Research has shown that when we don’t have a ‘full tank’ in these areas, our tolerance for stressful events is lowered and we’re more easily overwhelmed by stress,” Moss says.
“Even a good mental attitude without the resources of enough sleep and exercise can be ineffective. If stress is making you anxious, it might be that you simply need a good night’s sleep.”
See challenges instead of threats. Train your brain to perceive something stressful as a challenge instead of a threat and the fear you’d normally experience might turn into excitement, says Elizabeth Scott, a US-based wellness coach.
You can make this mental shift in perception by focusing on the resources you have to meet the challenge, seeing the benefits of a situation, reminding yourself of your strengths and finding a positive to every negative aspect, she says.