It’s safe to say that no one likes feeling stressed out. When you’re overwhelmed with life, anxiety can creep in, leading to all sorts of uncomfortable emotions. We’re taught to avoid stress at all costs.
But learning to sit with, and even appreciate, low level stress can actually impact your overall mental health in a positive way. Instead of vilifying stress, it’s important to honor that you’re feeling stressed out and allow those feelings to impact you positively instead of paralyzing you.
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Here’s what you need to know about letting your stress work for you, rather than against you.
What the Science Says about the Upside of Stress
While pervasive, unyielding stress (known as chronic stress) is undeniably bad for our mental and physical health, a recent study supports the idea that a little bit of stress, for a limited amount of time, can actually be good for you.
According to Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, who co-authored the study, “some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance.”
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Low to moderate levels of stress can create resilience, as well as have other positive impacts on your life in general.
Kaufer, along with UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Elizabeth Kirby, found through their research that stress can impact people for the better, depending on how they perceive the stress and how long the stress lasts. Basically, the way you think about your own stress matters.
Can Anxiety Actually Be Good for You?
Stress-induced anxiety is common these days, especially in the wake of the recent pandemic and all of the other issues people face . But anxiety itself is not the problem, according to therapist Britt Frank, author of The Science of Stuck. Frank calls anxiety the “check engine light” of your brain. When you feel anxious because of stress, your anxiety is not the actual issue—it’s a signal that something is going on beneath the surface.
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When you reframe everyday stress and anxiety as cues that signal a problem you need to face, you can start to appreciate those uncomfortable feelings of stress, overwhelm and anxious thoughts, then get super curious about the root cause. (Of course, chronic stress and anxiety can be debilitating and do not fall within the scope of this discussion.)
5 Ways to Harness the Positive Side of Stress
Now that you know that stress isn’t the absolute worst, and that it can even be helpful, here are five important ways that you can make your stress work for you.
1. Use stress as a source of information, not judgment
Think of stress the way Britt Frank frames anxiety—your check engine light is on and trying to tell you some useful information. Get curious about why you feel stress and what’s at the root of that stress. Don’t try to push your stress away, shove it down or tell yourself to just get over it. There’s no need to shame yourself for feeling stressed. Use your stress as a catalyst for finding a deeper self-awareness.
2. Use stress as a self care reminder
When you feel stressed, chances are that you need to take a beat and make time for nurturing your mind, body and soul. Ask yourself: When’s the last time you ate something nutritious? Had a glass of water? Moved your body? Instead of ruminating in stress, take action toward self care. If you have trouble thinking of ideas, keep a running list of actions on your phone of things that bring you joy, like texting a friend, going for a walk or petting your dog. That way, when you’re deep in stress, you can easily find a self care strategy to help you through it.
3. Use stress to help you take action
Stress can be a great motivator. Once you acknowledge and understand the source of your stress, take one small step of action.
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This could be crossing one item off of your to-do list, answering one email, committing to five minutes of exercise or setting a timer for 10 minutes while you begin to tackle cleaning your house. This first step is typically all you need to hunker down and finish the task at hand.
4. Use stress to assess your time management skills
Take stock of your energy management when you’re in a period of stress. Write down what’s eating up your time and what you’d rather be doing instead (or needing to do instead). Evaluate what you can delegate or just skip. Oftentimes, stress comes when we feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done. However, this stress can be alleviated when we realize that we don’t have to shoulder all of the burden ourselves. Use stress as a catalyst for setting boundaries and saying no when you need to.
5. Use stress to remind you of your resilience
Finally, allow stress to be your reminder of how strong you are. Even in the face of overwhelm and big emotions, you can persevere. Remember the times in your life when you felt anxious or over burdened and think about how you got through those periods. Harness your strength and resilience to tackle whatever it is that’s causing you to stress out. Accept that stress will come and go. Ride the waves knowing you can handle whatever hand life deals you.
Yes, Positive Anxiety Exists
While it’s hard to feel like there’s an upside to stress and anxiety, since we are often told that these emotions are to be avoided like the plague, they are simply part of life. When you feel stressed, don’t try to fight it. Welcome these feelings, and even the anxiety that can come with them. Use stress as a tool to understand yourself better. When you get curious about stress you can take better care of yourself, set firm boundaries, manage your time more efficiently and feel the benefits of resilience that come from weathering the storm of anxiety.
Instead of fearing periods of anxiety, realize that they are bound to come. It’s up to you how you acknowledge stress and use it for your betterment.
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