5 Better Ways To Deal With Stress, Backed By Science
Benjamin Franklin is commonly credited with saying that the only thing certain in life was death and taxes.
If he had he been alive in modern times, I’m sure he would have added stress to that list. We don’t go a day without feeling some type of stress, even if it is only minor.
A study from Carnegie Mellon has even reported that people’s self-reported stress levels have risen between 10 to 30 percent since 1983.
We’ve all heard about how stress can have some serious effects on our health. A survey done in 2014 finds that 74 percent of Americans agree that stress has affected their health, sleep, or thinking abilities.
However, there is a growing body of research showing that we may be unnecessarily vilifying stress. It’s not stress itself, but the way we think about stress. In other words, the way we think and react to the negativity surrounding stress that’s causing these health related issues.
Scientists are also finding that those people who approach stress differently are surprisingly resilient to it. This means that one of the best ways to change how stress affects us, might simply be to change how we think about it.
Wait, Isn’t Stress Bad For You?
What about all those studies and reports we hear about in the media saying that stress is bad for you? Doesn’t it shorten your life, make you depressed, and ruin your cardiovascular health?
You can’t refute all the evidence that points to the harmful side effects of stress. Whenever you read something in an article or see it on the news, you never hear that stress is good for you.
Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist at Stanford University and also the best selling author of The Willpower Instinct.
Recently, she’s tackled the subject of stress. While she used to think it was bad like the majority of us, she changed her mind after an in depth look at some of the recent research.
For example, one study looked at over 30,000 adults in the US. They asked them how much stress they experienced throughout the year and also asked if they believed stress was harmful to their health.
When the scientists checked up on the participants eight years later, they discovered that those with high stress levels increased the chances of death by 43%. So stress did increase health risks. However, there’s a pretty big “but” that goes along with the data.
Kelly from The Upside of Stress:
“But—and this is what got my attention—that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.”
The researchers concluded that stress was inherently bad. It was how people perceive stress that’s the real culprit.
How Do You React To Stress?
Some of you may be a bit skeptical. That’s only one study, and there’s no way belief can have that big of an effect on things like your health or happiness.
Why would something so simple as looking at stress differently have such a profound effect?
It comes down to how our behavior is shaped by what we think and feel. In fact, some researchers are finding that your reaction to stress is more important than how often you experience stress.
Another expert is Nancy Sin. Nancy and her fellow researchers have also studied the effects of stress perception on health outcomes.
One of their studies found that it didn’t matter whether people experienced a lot of stressful events throughout the day or just a few. Those people who perceived the events as more stressful – or experienced greater negative emotions – had lower measures of hear rate variability.
Heart rate variability is a sign of health and ability to respond to challenges. High variability is good, and low variability is not so good.
Here’s what Nancy says:
“These results tell us that a person’s perceptions and emotional reactions to stressful events are more important than exposure to stress per se.
This adds to the evidence that minor hassles might pile up to influence health.”
Need more evidence? Fair enough.
Another study by Nancy and her team looked at a variety of stressful situations. Things like arguments, avoiding arguments, being discriminated against, being around other people who are stressed, and more.
They found that people who reacted negatively to these daily stressors had elevated levels of inflammation – which has been associated with negative health outcomes.
The Benefits of Changing Your Perspective
Okay, so thinking differently about stress might give you a boost to your health. It doesn’t stop there, however.
Shawn Achor is someone who has studied happiness for years and is the best selling author of The Happiness Advantage. He also has one of the most popular TED talks of all time. In his presentation, he talks about the greatest predictors of success.
Here’s what he says:
“What we found is that only 25% of job successes are predicted by IQ, 75 percent of job successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support and your ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.“
Seeing stress as threatening also affects your success professionally. Now you have better health and more success at work, but we’re not done.
Another researcher in the area of stress mindsets is Alia Crum. She’s also found a few benefits to looking at stress differently.
The Upside of Stress:
“Crum’s research shows that people who believe stress is enhancing are less depressed and more satisfied with their lives than those who believe stress is harmful. They have more energy and fewer health problems. They’re happier and more productive at work.”
What Makes Stress Harmful?
Changing your mindset about stress has some big advantages. Life is going to throw you curve balls whether you’re ready or not. Before we talk about how to change your perspective, what is it that actually makes stress harmful?
Here’s what causing those negative outcomes.
The Upside of Stress:
“The science also tells us that stress is most likely to be harmful when three things are true:
1. You feel inadequate to it
2. It isolates you from others; and
3. It feels utterly meaningless and against your will.”
If you take a close look, you’ll notice how perception plays a big role into what makes stress harmful.
Conquering the harmful effects of stress means changing any feelings of inadequacy, isolation, meaninglessness, and powerlessness.
When we learn that something is harmful, we come to see it as a threat. Stress is no different. Our natural born response to threats is either to avoid it, or reduce it. However, this can bring about ineffective coping mechanisms.
Here’s some common strategies people employ when avoiding or reducing stress.
From The Upside of Stress:
“-Try to distract themselves from the cause of the stress instead of dealing with it.
-Focus on getting rid of their feelings of stress instead of taking steps to address its source.
-Turn to alcohol or other substances or addictions to escape the stress.
-Withdraw their energy and attention from whatever relationship, role, or goal is causing the stress.”
A lot of our stress avoidance and reduction strategies clearly aren’t great long term solutions. Let’s look at the mindsets and behaviors of people use when they have a more positive view of stress.
How To Change Your Perception of Stress
How you think about stress seems to play a big role in our lives, whether we realize it or not. So how can you begin to change your perception of stress? Here’s 5 things you can do.
1. Know that Stress Is Good For You
One of the biggest things you need to adjust your relationship with stress, is realize how it can be good for you. It may sound crazy at first, but there’s a lot of research proving this is true.
The Upside of Stress:
“The latest science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. It helps you learn and grow. It can even inspire courage and compassion. The new science also shows that changing your mind about stress can make you healthier and happier. How you think about stress affects everything from your cardiovascular health to your ability to find meaning in life.”
2. Regain a Feeling of Control
One of the big reasons stress can be harmful is because it feels out of your control. If something happens against your will, you feel helpless. So what can you do?
Get your sense of control back. Having a sense of control reduces the impact of stress.
From Your Brain at Work:
“Steve Maier at the University of Boulder, in Colorado, says that the degree of control that organisms can exert over something that creates stress determines whether the stressor alters the organism’s functioning. His findings indicate that only uncontrollable stressors cause deleterious effects. Inescapable or uncontrollable stress can be destructive, whereas the same stress that feels escapable is less destructive, significantly so.”
You can’t control how people or strangers will do or say around you. Life is uncontrollable like that. But you can always control how you react to a situation. Remembering you can control your actions can help you stick it to stress.
The worst thing you can do is give into helplessness. Assess the situation. Formulate a plan. Make decisions, even if they’re simple ones.
3. Connect with Others
It’s in our nature to connect as human beings. The people who don’t fear stress use it as a way to reach out and make those connections. How do they do it?
They give their time and energy. By both being more altruistic and donating their time, but by also caring for others, whether they be loved ones or strangers.
The Upside of Stress:
“After the death of a spouse, taking care of others reduces depression. Survivors of a natural disaster are less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder if they help others in the immediate aftermath. Among people living with chronic pain, becoming a peer counselor relieves pain, disability, and depression and increases sense of purpose. Victims of a terrorist attack feel less survivor guilt and find more meaning in life when they find a way to help others. After enduring a life-threatening health crisis, people who volunteer experience more hope, less depression, and a greater sense of purpose.”
You can help yourself by helping others. Not only will you connect with other human beings, but it also gives you more purpose in life.
On the flip-side, those that try to steel themselves against stress, ignore it, or power through, only increase their chances of burnout as well as psychologically isolating themselves.
Understand that everyone experiences stress, even if they look like they have it together on the surface. The last thing you want to do is isolate yourself. Having strong social connections that you can lean on is key.
4. Connect With Your Values
Stress can be harmful if it’s seen as meaningless.
People who see stress differently also make another key realization. When they become stressed, it’s because something they care about is at stake. For them, stress gives them a reminder about the things they care about.
Polls have shown that some of the highest stressed nations in the world are also the nations where people report having the most meaning in their lives.
When you have things you care about in life – whether it be family, friends, or impressing the cute girl at work – you’re going to have some kind of stress in your life. Stress means you care about something. It’s up to you to find out what it is exactly you care about.
What’s one of the easiest ways to help you find meaning when you’re stressed out?
Write down your values.
One study had students write down their most important values and how they related to their everyday activities. The students did this for three weeks.
What the researchers discovered was that students had better health, more confidence, and were happier than students who simply wrote about the good things that happened to them every day.
Researchers believed that writing down values helped students find the meaning in their lives. They realized that the little irritating or stressful things in their day were connected to values that they cared about.
The Upside of Stress:
“In the short term, writing about personal values makes people feel more powerful, in control, proud, and strong. It also makes them feel more loving, connected, and empathetic toward others. It increases pain tolerance, enhances self-control, and reduces unhelpful rumination after a stressful experience.”
This also seems to be another way to get a feeling of control when stress seems out of your control. Writing out your values has also shown a number of other benefits such as boosting GPAs, weight loss, and improving your mental health.
5. Make Goals Larger than Yourself
Another way people transform their stress is by focusing on a different set of goals. Mostly, our goals are focused on ourselves. Get a promotion, lose weight, get a degree.
While those types of goals aren’t bad, people who focus on “larger-than-self” goals are driven by different motivations. These types of goals focus on contributing to others and creating change in communities, organizations, and people you care about.
When studies look at people who focus on these goals, what do they find?
The Upside of Stress:
“One of the first things they found is that when people are connected to bigger-than-self goals, they feel better: more hopeful, curious, caring, grateful, inspired, and excited. In contrast, when people are operating from self-focused goals, they are more likely to feel confused, anxious, angry, envious, and lonely.”
Your Brain Flux
Here’s the breakdown of what we covered.
1. Stress itself isn’t bad for you. It’s stress and the belief that stress is bad for you. While stress definitely can have some negative health effects, those people who are resilient in the face of stress see it in a different way. Stress has also shown to help you learn, reach out to others, and enhance performance.
2. Stress in only bad when certain conditions are met. When stress makes you feel inadequate, meaningless, out of your control, and it isolates you from other people.
3. See Stress Differently. Changing the way you see stress will change the way you react to it and how you deal with it. This starts with realizing that stress can also be good for you. It can enhance your performance and make you more resilient.
4. People who see stress as good do the following things. They realize stress can be a good thing. They take control by choosing how they react to stress. They connect with others by helping others in need and donating their time. They find meaning from stress by connecting their values to the stress in their life. And they focus on goals that are larger than just themselves.