3 Ways to Make Stress Become an Energizer Instead of a Zapper

06/22/2015 05:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Something has to be done. I'm compelled to discuss the idea of reframing stressful events as energizing as opposed to debilitating; this in light of the recent rash suicides and stories of intense burn out on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. Obviously, these aren't the only pressure cookers out there, but they are iconic in this regard. It was the reason I was interviewed on CNBC not long ago.

Just recently in the Huffington Post, Emily Peck wrote about the announcement that Goldman Sachs decided to give their interns and junior executives a gift. The gift of common sense: they are required NOT to be at work from midnight to 7:00AM. Crazy that this needs to be mandated, but indeed the 100 hour work weeks are taking their toll and no payout of millions will bring back the mental and physical health that this work "ethic" (seems unethical to me) is robbing from those who attempt it week after week. You'd have thought we would have learned from the 24/7 work habits of the Japanese in the 60's through the 80's when they coined a work phenomenon with a word: Karōshi. It literally means "death from overwork." This, after workers were keeling over and dying in the midst of abhorrent work conditions; not unlike many of the conditions reported about Wall Street. But alas, Wall Street (or your workplace) isn't likely going to change rapidly, as evidenced by Goldman Sachs' rule that doesn't go nearly far enough. So, since we can't change the institution, let's take a look at what can be done. As I noted before, it's about changing our mindset about stress.

A recent study* found that indeed we can change our mindset and have an impact on how our brain and body respond to perceived stressful events. When you think about what causes stress, it is likely when obstacles get in the way of achieving some goal. The obstacle could be as trivial as a janitor blocking entrance to the restroom while they clean up. This happens often at the airport. We sigh with exasperation that we have to go walk another 50 yards to the next available restroom. Just that small obstacle stresses us out (plus we have a really important goal to take care of!). Of course, there are countless other examples as well. But, if you think about all the things that give you a bump of stress, they're likely because you either anticipate something not going as you wish, or you actually experience something that gets in the way of your goal.

Mindset to the rescue. In the study, the researchers found that all it took was a very little amount of priming for the brain to be convinced of either stress being an energizing enhancement or it being debilitating; ten minutes of video and a survey to skew each of the study groups toward their unknown assignment of stress mindset (enhancing or debilitating). The self-reports of stress levels and the physiological tests of cortisol reactivity (our stress hormone) found that those in the debilitating group had more cortisol in their systems during acute stress and they reported feeling less energized and more wrought from stress overall. The opposite was true of the stress-is-enhancing group.

There was also one other very interesting finding. Those in the stress-is-enhancing group were more open to feedback. Feedback itself has been shown to activate a stress response in the brain and people often shy away from it. But, with the enhanced mindset, that group was more open to hear ways to improve. That's powerful for those wishing to improve.

So, since the world of distractions and work intensity is unlikely to change any time soon, it seems the thing that can change to make things not only bearable, but more energizing, is our mindset.

Here are the three things I suggest.

1. Adopt a "bring it on attitude." When I commiserate about all of the things on my plate, I can get overwhelmed in a hurry. Instead, I tell myself, "This is supposed to be difficult. Successful people do difficult things and conquer them. Bring it on!" It actually helps. Try it.

2. Talk to yourself. This is sort of like the point above, but refined a bit. It's been shown when you talk to yourself AND use your first name, the result is like having a best friend advise you. I remember many times standing above a black diamond ski slope that was well beyond my skill saying, "Scott, you can do this. Just go!" Careful not to be too loud around other people with this tactic!

3. Look for ways around the obstacles. Be an "optionist." Often we get into blame or we want to give up, especially when we are on our last nerve. Both are negative and unproductive routes. Take three deep breaths (actually shown to physiologically reset the stress response). Now think about or talk with someone else about solutions. As Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman puts it in his important book Learned Optimism, it is counterproductive while swimming across the English Channel to say, "I can't do this!"

Mindset can change and it can do so relatively easily. It is likely that you'll need to keep reminding yourself of the above tactics, especially if you're in a pressure cooker. Plus, insist on taking your vacation time and creating sacred space on weekends where you DO NO WORK! Small, positive suggestions to the brain and then at least we have a chance to energize rather than decompensate. Good luck. You can do it!

*Alia J. Crum, Peter Salovey and Shawn Achor. "Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104, no. 4 (2013): 716.