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Embrace the Positive Potential of Stress

11/22/2013 08:57 am ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014
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Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

In a recent TEDTalk, "How to make stress your friend", Dr. Kelly McGonigal provides evidence from research studies that stress isn't bad for you. In fact, negative effects of stress appear only in those who believe that stress is bad. By changing the way you think about stress, you can reduce the negative impact of these physiological reactions. Also, Dr. McGonigal suggests turning to others for support or giving support to others can lessen the negative impact of stress.

It's gratifying to know that the findings from health psychology corroborate the usefulness of the cognitive behavioral therapy. In a nutshell, cognitive behavioral therapy aims to challenge maladaptive thinking patterns and to develop healthier, more effective perspective and behaviors. Hence, Dr. McGonigal's interventions of seeing the stress response in a positive light and turning to others for support are consistent with what cognitive behavioral therapists have been doing for years. The evidence that these approaches can reduce the negative effects of stress and associated mortality is a welcomed bonus!

Many clients seek out cognitive behavior therapy to gain control over their anxiety and other unpleasant emotions. "I want to stop feeling anxious when I meet new people" or "I don't want to feel so stressed out when I try to speak up for myself." These goals are common and are not surprising. Who wants to feel their bodies gearing up to "fight or flight" where the heart races, blood pressure spikes, breathing becomes shallow and irregular, face flushes, and hands become clammy? No one does, especially when these physical sensations are out of proportion to situations that trigger them.

Clients are often surprised when I tell them that the anxiety or "stressed feelings" are not inherently bad for you. In fact, feeling stressed can be an indication that we are challenging ourselves. Challenge is good; it allows us to develop a sense of competence, boost our self-esteem, and feelings of mastery. Avoidance, on the other hand, relieves stress temporarily but can also give us a false sense of security.

By seeking out opportunities and challenges, you are being proactive in practicing this new perspective on stress. -- Kathariya Mokrue, PhD

I'd like to add a few things to the lessons and interventions from Dr. McGonigal's talk:

1 -- SLOW DOWN: It can be difficult to override the primitive, instinctive emotional response to stress with balanced thinking. The reason for this is that our "primitive" brain areas are located in a different site than our "evolved" neo-cortex which is responsible for reason and planning. The communication between these two areas is not direct. But if you slow down the "fight or flight" activation a bit, you will be able to access more helpful perspectives. One way to slow down is to use diaphragmatic breathing for at least 20 cycles. When the volume of the stress reaction is turned down, you'll be able to think more reasonable thoughts about your situation.

2 -- PRIME YOURSELF FOR STRESS: By seeking out opportunities and challenges, you are being proactive in practicing this new perspective on stress. You can seek out situations that normally activate your stress response, prime yourself for stress by saying "I will feel stressed and anxious because I am challenging myself," "This is a good sign that I am developing confidence and mastery in this situation," and "Feeling stressed/anxious doesn't mean I've failed." It is through consistent practice that you will learn to shift your thinking about your stress response. Once you develop more competence and mastery around a particular situation, then you'll start to believe that stress is good for you too.

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