Rather than trying to minimize or avoid stress, we can learn to use it as a tool for growth, greater performance, and increased productivity.
In 2012, researchers at the University of Wisconsin conducted a study asking almost 29,000 people two questions:
- How much stress have you had in the past year?
- Do you think stress is harmful to your health?
In the study, individuals who reported having high levels of stress and who believed stress had a large impact on their health actually had an increased risk of premature death by 43%. On the other hand, those who reported high levels of stress but did not perceive its effects as negative were found to have the lowest risk of premature death of every group in the study. This suggests that the very way we perceive stress is one of the most important factors influencing how it affects our health.
Rather than trying to minimize or avoid stress, we can learn to use it as a tool for growth, greater performance, and increased productivity. This change in mindset is achieved in part by redefining stress into two different types of stress: eustress and distress.
Eustress is positive stress and is actually necessary for our overall well-being. This is the type of “positive” stress that keeps us vital and excited about life.
Distress, on the other hand, is negative stress and can make us feel overwhelmed because our resources (physical, emotional, and/or mental) are insufficient to meet demand.
Eustress, or positive stress, has the following characteristics:
- Is perceived as within our coping abilities
- Improves performance
- Is short-term stress
- Feels exciting
- Is energizing
Examples include stretch projects, developing new skills, performing in a competition, etc.
In contrast, distress, or negative stress, has the following characteristics:
- Is perceived to be outside of our coping abilities
- Can be short- or long-term stress
- Impairs performance
- Feels unpleasant
- Is draining
Examples include working long hours without breaks, fears about job security, unexpected health issues, etc.
In daily life, we often use the term “stress” to describe negative situations. This leads many of us to believe that all stress is bad for us, which is not true. It’s our interpretation of the stressor itself that has the biggest impact on how we perceive any situation or event.
How to turn stress into growth
Changing the way we perceive stress is the first step. Next, we need to understand and embrace the oscillatory nature of stress. Oscillation refers to the rhythmic movement between stress and recovery.
Too much stress without recovery ultimately leads to burnout—impacting our performance, health, and happiness. What it comes down to is that following a period of activity, the body must refuel, re-charge, and re-energize. This is called “compensation”, and when it occurs, the body returns to its original baseline level.
Intermittent recovery ensures that we can sustain high performance so long as demand stays constant. But what happens when increased demand exceeds our capacity? Paradoxical as it may seem, to maximize performance potential, we must systematically expose ourselves to more stress followed by adequate periods of rest and recovery. In sports science, this phenomenon is known as “supercompensation”, and it occurs when the body recovers to a point above the original baseline level in anticipation of the next stimulus.
We grow at all levels—physically, emotionally, and mentally—by systematically exposing ourselves to more stress and then allowing for recovery.
How to recover from stress even if you don’t have time
We can get a great deal of recovery in very short periods of time—as little as a few minutes—if it involves a practice that allows us to truly disengage from our work and change channels.
It’s possible, for example, to significantly relax the body, quiet the mind, and calm our emotions simply by changing the way we breathe. Breathing in through your nose to a count of three and out through your mouth to a count of six prompts a significant feeling of relaxation in less than a minute.
Meditation is often viewed as a spiritual practice, however, at a more practical level, it’s simply a tool to improve our mental focus and promote recovery. A perfectly adequate meditation technique, for example, involves sitting quietly and breathing deeply for as little as 3 minutes a day, counting each exhalation, and starting over when you reach ten.
It’s also no coincidence that many athletes wear headphones as they prepare for competition. Researchers have recently discovered that music improves the body’s immune system function, increases the amount of the feel-good hormone dopamine, and reduces stress.
We perform better, feel better, and get more accomplished when we take the time to periodically disengage from our work. Ultimately, it’s during recovery—not exertion—that growth occurs.