5 steps to stress less. 10 hacks for hacking away stress. Stress, stress, stress. Volumes have been written about it, how to cope with it, how to avoid it, how to manage it.
Yet we continue to stress. We run, we chill, we focus our attention elsewhere. It absolutely does alleviate stress, for sure. But what it doesn't do is help us to stress, better.
Stress better?? Yup, and I've earned a MEh.d in it.
We begin to stress better when we accept that stress is necessary. That it's an inevitable part of life. That it serves us and deserves an alternate perspective for which we view stress.
How about welcoming it? How about recognizing that when we stress, we're receiving additional biological resources which allow us to better take on that challenge du jour. In her Stanford class, The Upside of Stress, Dr. Kelly McGonigal challenged us to choose an alternative perspective of stress with the awareness that stress and achievement are inextricably linked. Not to avoid it, but welcome it and take an approach-based mindset to what it's telling us. That often when consumed with stress, we're growing, even if it feels like we're shrinking.
Think back on your times of greatest personal growth. My guess is there was a fair amount of stress attached to it. To provide some context, I'll share mine. My greatest moment of personal growth happened in 2006, and eff, did it include stress. The diagnosis of a severe anxiety order kind of stress. The sitting at your desk experiencing repeated panic attacks, one after another, while your team is sitting just a few feet away none the wiser kind of stress. The shameful admittance of (what I considered at the time) emotional weakness to an Army Ranger CEO kind of stress. And it went on for months. Years. What the eff possible good could come out of that?
Though I can't refer to "the good that came out of it" by its name, let's just say out of stress came my calling. A purpose so emotionally charged it amplified my career and took it in a direction that was nowhere on my career path. Eventually, my calling was answered by hundreds, perhaps even thousands of others and helped create some of the brightest experiences of my life, and I hope, for others as well. Yet it all came from one of the darkest.
I'd bet I would not be writing this today had that stressful experience never happened. In hindsight, however, I wish I would have known how to stress, better. Which gets us to the purpose of this article. Let's get into what I've learned.
When we welcome stress with the mindset that it's here to help, not hinder, we experience stress (not cope, not avoid, not manage). It changes how we think, feel, behave, and...our biology. I won't get into the biological science as I'm not an expert but what I've learned about it is as fantastically interesting as it is motivating (when learning to stress better).
Learning to stress better is easier written and read about than done. However, equipped with the proper constructs, our ability to upgrade eons of passed down brain biology is possible. It takes dedication, discipline, and deliberate practice. Most of all it requires patience and a whole mess of self-compassion. Right, Megan?
Perhaps one of the most, if not THE most effective constructs is explanatory style.
Our explanatory style is how we explain the bad events in our lives....the things that evoke a stress response. It's the work of Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, and it's rich in efficacy and self-care. When we react to stress with a pessimistic explanatory style, our talk track is focused on the permanent, pervasive, or personal, which leads to poor emotional health. Here's an example of each pessimistic explanatory styles:
Permanent - "I'll always be stressed."
Pervasive - "All managers are a-holes."
Personal - "It's always my fault."
Sound familiar? Pay close attention to your mental chatter during your next opportunity to stress better. When you catch yourself spiraling down this path, stop. Just stop. And then, re-frame with this:
Not Permanent - "This stress will pass."
Not Pervasive - "My manager is an a-hole. Arch was an AWESOME manager!"
Not Personal - "I know I made a mistake but their instructions were terrible."
This awareness alone is enough for you to go to work on yourself.
1. Welcome stress with the mindset of a researcher.
2. Take note of your automatic explanatory style.
3. Begin to re-frame that pessimistic explanatory style with an optimistic one–one that's temporary (this stress will go away just like all the other times), specific (I'm only stressed about this one project, not my entire life), and other-focused (there are so many factors to why I missed my PR by thirty seconds).
Cultivating an optimistic explanatory style is not coping. It's not avoiding. It's not managing stress. It's upgrading our relationship with stress. It provides us a perspective of control of an often perceived uncontrollable experience. And it works. It takes work, lots of it, but it really, really works. I'm proof. Keep running, keep finding chill, all of those wonderful behaviors that alleviate stress. Just keep your explanatory style optimistic.
A special thanks to Dr. Kelly McGonigal, Dr. Martin Seligman, Megan Bruneau, and Christy Fuston for the education, information, inspiration, and opportunity to learn to stress, better.
Interested in stressing better? Let's talk.