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01/28/2016 08:27 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2017

4 Ways Stress Can Help You Perform Better

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Stress is every person's kryptonite. When you're stressed, your brain releases cortisol, which interferes with learning and memory. Your ability to think, focus, and perform at your best is taken away. Studies have shown that stress can even shrink your brain.

But stress can become your ally. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal says, "It can be true that going through something stressful can make you sick or depressed, and it can also be true that the same stressful experience can ultimately make you stronger, more compassionate and more resilient over time."

In her Ted Talk: "How to make stress your friend," McGonigal cites a study that tracked 30,000 adults for eight years. They found that stress increased a person's risk of mortality only if they believed stress was bad for their health. People who experienced high stress but did not believe it was harmful had lower health risks. Changing your foundational belief about stress altered your body's response.

Here are four ways to alter your perception of stress and turn it into your ally.

1. Preparing for battle

When you experience stress, your body immediately responds with cues such as increased heart rate, shallow breathing, and sweating.  It is crucial at this point to begin the reinterpretation process.

Rochester University study took students with social anxiety and set them up to give a speech in front of judges. The group primed to reframe their stress as the body's way of "preparing for battle" performed much better than those who did not. Lead author of the study, professor Jeremy Jamieson noted, "Our experience of acute or short-term stress is shaped by how we interpret physical cues."

Pay attention to your body's response to a stressful situation; see it as priming and preparing you for peak performance.

2. Meaningful living 

When psychologists surveyed and asked people whether they felt their lives had meaning, those who believed their lives were most meaningful were also those who experienced high levels of stress. McGonigal calls this the "stress paradox," the same circumstances that give rise to stress will also give rise to meaning in your life.

At his retreats for entrepreneurs, Nikolaj Madsen encourages people to view stress as a barometer for how engaged they are in life; to see stress as a signal for progressing in your goals and relationships.

Make the mental shift from: "my life is stressful," to "my life is meaningful."

3. Stress Inoculation

Astronauts, doctors, and elite athletes refine their skills through stress-induced simulations. During a stressful situation, your brain is rewiring itself to learn from the experience. Whether your mental imprint and performance is positive or negative depends on how you process your stress during this window of time. Psychologists call this mental process "stress inoculation."

Stress inoculation therapy is used to build psychological resilience through teaching people to view stressors as creative opportunities and puzzles to be solved. Each event becomes a "rehearsal" as you identify the skill you need to acquire and refine to master the stressful situation.

Begin to see your stress as an opportunity to learn, grow, and build mental resilience.

4. Relationship building 

You've probably heard of oxytocin, "the love hormone" that's released during sex and physical contact. What's less known about oxytocin is that it's a stress hormone -- your pituitary gland releases it as a stress response.

When life gets difficult, your body is prompting you to seek support, to connect with people, share you feelings. This releases oxytocin -- a natural anti-inflammatory that helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress.

McGonigal says, "when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress."

Human connection is the key to building stress resilience. Let stress be your signal to phone a friend.

Thai is a perpetual student and teacher and enjoys sharing everything he learns on The Utopian Life. You can connect with him also on Facebook and Twitter.