Doing well at work. Being a responsive friend or partner. Hitting your personal goals. In many areas of life, there is pressure to perform well.
For too many of us, these pressures start to take on a life of their own — compounding to the point that we feel paralyzed.
But responsibility doesn’t have to be a source of stress.
The most important factor in turning pressure into something positive, experts say, is one’s mindset.
Stress: a little good, mostly bad
If you find yourself facing down stress, you’re in good company. About 80% of Americans have a hard time relaxing due to stress.
This constant drumbeat of worry has all sorts of negative health effects. Stress affects nearly every system in the body — and can even result in inflammation that causes or worsens many health conditions.
A little bit of stress might help us to perform better in high-stakes situations, but constant stress is really toxic.
Why we put pressure on ourselves
If stress is so bad for us, why do we fall into it? The answer probably lies in our millions of years of evolution.
Early humans with a laissez-faire attitude about life’s challenges probably didn’t make it too far into adulthood. But those who were cautious — an essential survival skill — fared much better.
Today, we don’t have to worry about mastodons or rock-and-spear battles. But the part of our brain that fixates on threats is still with us.
This threat circuitry can be overloaded by all of the demands of modern life, particularly if we ruminate on our problems.
But — good news — you can take steps to stop ruminating. The first step is to start paying attention to what’s driving it.
The key to turning stress into positivity: awareness and action
It’s easy to tell when you’re stressed. Your heart rate picks up. Your breathing quickens. You may feel your mood starting to slip.
What’s challenging is separating these physical responses from the thoughts that are driving them. But only if you identify what you’re feeling can you manage those feelings to positive effect.
Objective awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings doesn’t come naturally to most people. It’s a practice, in other words.
One way to describe this practice is mindfulness, or being mindful of your emotions without judging them. Buddhist monks have practiced mindfulness for thousands of years, and more recently, it’s been shown to have a profound impact on the brain.
Becoming more mindful does take time. For best results, consider getting guidance from a mindfulness expert (like a psychologist, doctor, or if you can find one, a monk).
Beyond sitting with your emotions to better manage them, here’s what experts suggest you do to turn your stress into positivity.
Name what you can and can’t control
Nicholas Petrie is an organizational consultant who works with business executives facing intense job pressures. One exercise he does with clients is to have them draw a circle, then write down inside it all of the stressors they can control or influence.
Stressors outside their influence, meanwhile, go outside the circle.
The goal is to not only define one’s stressors but narrow them down to a more manageable list.
Plan to learn
The universe will keep trying to teach you a lesson until you learn it. Rumination is similar. You worry over things because they represent an unresolved concern.
Ask yourself, then, what lessons you can draw from the situations that are stressing you. “Your brain will review events until it feels you’ve gained something from them,” Petrie explains. So, after identifying the stressors that are in your control, frame them in the context of what you stand to gain from tackling them.
What’s really key to turning stress into positivity is to use it as a motivator. Recognize that stress can have a purpose and that you stand to come out better, stronger, and happier by facing it down.
Viewing stress as helpful is associated with better health, more life satisfaction, and higher productivity, Stanford research shows.
Learning and growing from stress even has a name: stress inoculation. If you make an action plan for each stressor that’s on your mind, you’ll be able to not only reduce your stress but improve how you handle it in the future.
Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash.