6 Simple Steps To Uncovering The Upside Of Stress

02/02/2015 08:14 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2015
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By now it's clear that stress can harm our health in a multitude of ways, and new scientific research reinforcing its negative effects seems to debut weekly. But something we often fail to discuss is the positive side of stress, the conscious role we play in creating it, and how it can actually help us be more productive, creative and successful every day.

Eustress, the scientific term for "good stress," encompasses the various healthy responses a person can have to any given form of stress. Distress, its natural counterpoint and the one we often think of when we hear the "S" word, is responsible for the physical, mental and emotional problems we, as a society, are now working so hard to avoid. However, these two categorizations are, at their roots, the same, with only two key factors distinguishing them.

From a biological perspective, all stress stems from the body's natural "fight-or-flight" response. Once the body senses a given threat, the heart begins to pump blood more quickly, the brain sends cortisol and adrenaline throughout the body, and the digestive and immune systems shut down temporarily to focus all attention on dealing with the stressor. This response happens with all stress -- it's automatic.

Now we can first distinguish between good and bad stress by the length of time for which we experience it. The body's stress response is an acute one, meaning it is intended to last only for a short period of time. While those reactions prove beneficial (some researchers say it even strengthens the immune system), they turn destructive when they become more chronic, or prolonged. And let's face it: Many of the things that send us over the edge today are perpetual, daily occurrences, keeping our bodies in this fighting mode, which ultimately leaves us tired, weak and upset.

Stressors are also deemed positive or negative by the attitude we bring to the table about them beforehand, and as they arise. The moment we begin to feel as though we have lost control of our situation, the harmful effects of stress begin. But just as we have the power to psych ourselves out for a big meeting or interview, dread the usual morning traffic jam, or expect the worse from confrontation with a friend or family member, we can approach stereotypical "stressful" situations in a proactive, optimistic fashion. By doing so, the body's stress response can begin to work for us again rather than against us.

Instead of letting bad stress drag you down the path of unhappiness, exhaustion and burnout, use these six simple steps to harness its power in a positive way.

Be honest about your self-talk.

mirror reflection

Taking the time to acknowledge how you internalize stress and what that may mean for how you're currently feeling could be one of the most beneficial, mindful moments you ever create for yourself. Only by listening without judgment to that inner dialogue can you begin to understand where those automatic responses come from and then replace them with a more helpful and motivational commentary that can guide you through various tough situations.

Catch it before it starts.

mindfulness practice

Once a stress response is under way, there's no stopping it biologically, which makes it even more critical to develop foresight into dealing with stressful situations in a constructive manner. Since control is so closely linked to the anxiety aspects of the stress response, focusing your energy on determining what you can (and can't!) affect is one of the most powerful, proactive tools available for dealing with the downsides of stress. If you're able to go into each moment with this type of calm and mental clarity, the stress you experience will become more of a fleeting feeling than a consistently overwhelming pressure to try and change or fix.

Reframe challenges as opportunities.

happy at work

This mental trick not only makes you more resilient to the negative impact of stress, but also sets you up for more successful stress face-offs in the future. That repeated exposure lends the body psychologically as much as physically a sense of control that resurfaces when similar experiences arise. So instead of viewing a daily dose of stress as a roadblock to overcome, accept it as a positive challenge to then improve your productivity, focus and overall performance.

Think about what works -- and what doesn't -- for you.

annoyed at work

Everyone is different when it comes to the particulars (not to mention intensity) of their stress triggers. Some people fear public speaking while others can't get enough of it. Some people seek the thrill of tight deadlines while others can't stand it. Just as it's important to listen to how you speak to yourself regarding stressful situations, knowing the circumstances, activities or personality traits in others that make you feel less in control and full of consistent anxiety can help you tremendously in managing your unnecessary stress exposure. Living by your own individualized meaning and purpose, both at work and otherwise, can boast big benefits when it comes to reducing your stress levels.

Change up your surroundings.

drinking tea at home happy

Good stress is a motivator to finish a given task at work or push for a challenging promotion -- in a sense, it helps us thrive. Without it, we would often lack the motivation to achieve anything at all. But for many of us, our modern environments seem to antagonize us rather than inspire us. Sticking with jobs we truly dislike that require longer commutes and more time away from the people and activities we enjoy keeps chronic stress at a persistent high. And that stress, over time, can lead to premature aging, a weakened immune system, damage to the brain, a higher risk of infection, the development of mental disorders, and the beginnings of heart disease. Rather than sticking with surroundings that perpetuate the burnout -- and breakdown -- of the body, consider making lifestyle changes that would help reduce the amount of "bad" stress in your life automatically.

Ask for help.

holding hands

Changing your perception of stress (even before it happens) is often easier said than done, which is all the more reason to not go it alone. Research has shown that the utilization of coaching, training and peer support groups can be quite effective in transforming typically negative stressors into positive ones. For example, Columbia Business School research scholar Alia Crum gave a group of employees at a struggling financial services company a video-based training program intended to lighten their perspectives of their work environment. After watching motivational clips of athletes and professionals both facing challenges and overcoming them, the workers experienced a substantial improvement in their own attitudes. Instead of interpreting stress as an energy drainer, they viewed it as a potential performance aid -- a change that may or may not have occurred without this external assistance.

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