You know the feeling: sweaty palms, dry mouth, tightness in the gut and huge armpit stains.
But do you know the worst part about stress and anxiety? When you think about how it’s killing you.
The funny thing is, the more we think about all the negative effects of stress, the more stressed out we feel about everything. But, maybe it's not always so bad to occupy your brain with some "what ifs."
Can stress be positive?
Let’s flip the script real quick.
What if stress actually wasn’t killing you? What if depression, cancer, heart disease, chronic anxiety and dissolving toenails weren’t all side effects of stress?
What if it was actually enhancing your health and life? What if stress could help you focus? What if stress could make you happier, more confident and stronger?
Well, it can.
Kelly McGonigal is a Professor of Psychology at Stanford, and she just dropped a new book called, "The Upside Of Stress." In it, she aims to shift our paradigm in thinking stress is a toxic killer. She attempts to change our view from a “stress is harmful” thought process to a “stress is enhancing” mindset.
The latest science reveals stress can make you smarter, stronger and more successful. It helps you learn and grow. It can even inspire courage and compassion.
Okay. So what is it that makes stress enhancing, rather than debilitating?
How can stress be a positive force?
Back in my glory days, before my basketball games, I would get all the familiar symptoms of stress. I’d be in the locker room with sweaty palms, a dry mouth, restless legs and butterflies in my stomach.
However, it never crossed my mind I was dying. I viewed this as enhancing. I viewed it as adrenaline, excitement and being pumped up.
Although all the same physiological symptoms of stress were there, my perception actually changed my biology. I didn’t freeze up due to fear, I felt energized. I didn’t lose my train of thought, I was focused.
It all boils down to perception.
How you view your stress is how your biology responds. Crazy, right?
In McGonigal’s book, she talks about two types of stress hormones. The first is cortisol.
Cortisol is the stress hormone that, if sustained at high levels over long periods of time, can hurt your health. It causes many well-known, negative effects of stress, including heart disease, cancers, depression and chronic anxiety.
The second one is DHEA. It can actually enhance focus, help your immune system, battle depression and even prevent against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Both are released by your adrenal glands during periods of stress, but what matters is the ratio of DHEA to cortisol (called the growth index of a stress response).
Those who view stress as negative tend to have a higher ratio of cortisol to DHEA. However, those who view stress as a sign of a challenge or excitement tend to have a higher portion of DHEA.
The only difference in which hormone was released was the perception people had of the stress.
Yes, you read that right.
How you view your stress literally changes whether it's good or bad for you. Whoa.
How do you work on changing your perception? So glad you asked:
1. Give more.
Entrepreneur Tai Lopez talks about how, ironically, generously giving away your money causes it to come back to you ten-fold. Bill Gates gives away nearly all his money, and he's still the richest man in the world.
It’s the same with stress. Give more of your time and energy helping others, and watch time and energy come back to you.
2. Journal your value.
Take a few minutes every day to write about your values. What do you stand for?
Students who wrote about their values over vacation gained more meaning in their lives. It gives us a reason for what we do, which shows us the meaning behind our stress. It causes us to view stress as helpful.
Stressful experiences become "an expression of values, rather than hassles to overcome."
If you don't have values, I really can’t help you.
3. Meditation is key.
I recommend this to all my friends, and they all scoff at the idea. But meditation has been shown to decrease stress, improve focus and attention span, improve immune function and make us more compassionate.
Here’s a quick how-to:
Set a timer for five minutes. Take deep breaths in and out, and focus on one thing. The goal is to silence your mind. Naturally, this will be damn near impossible.
But every time your mind wanders, simply bring it back to that one focus point. When your time is up, you're done.
4. Don’t try to calm down.
One of the most interesting experiments in McGonigal's book was when researchers took two groups of students who were giving presentations. One group was told to try to calm down and relax. The other group was told to announce they felt excited about giving the presentation.
Later, people who watched the presentations rated the "excited group" as more persuasive, confident and competent. If you have sweaty palms and a dry mouth, don't tell yourself you're calm, cool and collected. (We can see your armpit sweat from here.)
Do what I subconsciously did in the locker room: Be excited and pumped up. Announce it. Watch your actions follow suit.
5. Hang with friends.
One of the most powerful things you can do for somebody is let them know they aren’t alone, and vice versa.
Trust me, you’re not the only one stressed about finals. You’re not the only one stressing about money, your career, your relationship or your Chipotle and vodka habit. Many of your peers are going through the same stressful events.
Social belonging is something we all need in our lives. It’s why people go to pheromone parties, or write their Elite Daily articles at Starbucks with the other unemployed people in their city.
Go to Starbucks or Chipotle with some friends to de-stress, and chat them up about what’s going on in your life. We're in our 20s, for God's sake. Life is good.
6. Practice gratitude.
This is an awesome exercise, but it's hard to do consistently. It's an easy thing to put on the "I'll do it later" list, and all of a sudden it's 2022 and you haven't done sh*t.
Shawn Achor, the author of my favorite book,"Before Happiness," consistently talks about gratitude and its importance on our well-being. If you're a stronger person than I am, try this consistently: Sit down every morning and write out three to five different things you're grateful for.
Gratitude is the greatest conqueror of fear. When you practice being grateful in the moment, you find life really isn't that bad.