Stress is part of daily life, no getting around it.
However, what if you could use this guaranteed contribution to your day as a resource and set it to work for you?
Like most things in life, our perception plays a monumental role in the outcome… no different from our perception of stress. You see, the body experiences many of the same arousal cues from stress as it does from excitement or exhilaration. Both arousal states, for instance, produce an increase in heart rate and cortisol levels and a “readiness for action.” What if you could legitimately reframe your body’s stress cues as cues of anticipation, excitement, exhilaration or readiness to rise to the challenges ahead of you? What if you could start your day by expecting and welcoming challenge rather than dreading stress?
Denying stress is not possible and avoiding it is not feasible. (Life on an island with no bills and cocktails would become pretty boring after five years believe it or not because we thrive on challenge and opportunity.)
In a study conducted by Harvard Medical School, stress responses were measured and an alternate response was identified. It is aptly dubbed the “challenge-response” and essentially involves reframing stressful situations as “challenges to be overcome.” If we learn to interpret the body’s arousal cues as simply priming us with “readiness to overcome,” we will no longer respond as if we are under attack. In this particular study when participants believed that their stress response actually allowed them to perform better, the stress they were subjected to did not affect them negatively. In fact, it fueled them to approach the task at hand with confidence. In other words, simply believing that stress was not harmful and that they had the resources to overcome allowed them to overcome! The ability to improve our cognitive and emotional states with perception is impressive, but the really amazing part of all of this is that we can actually influence our physical health with our appraisal of stress. Perception of stress actually has an effect on our cardiovascular systems. In a classic stress response, our blood vessels constrict and our bodies prepare for inflammation. In a challenge-response, our bodies literally respond in the opposite fashion, with our blood vessels remaining open and encouraging good blood flow. Believe in the power of the mind on the body yet?
So to summarize this game-changer, if we believe that we can cope with our stressors, we are likely to naturally fall into the challenge response. However, if we believe that our stress is greater than our capacity to cope, we will likely fall into trouble physiologically, by activating the sympathetic-adrenal- medullary (SAM) axis which switches on when we believe we are under threat. Can you see how important it is to harness your interpretation of body arousal cues swiftly and intentionally before they trigger a threat response? A fast reframe can literally change everything! Remember that there are alternate responses to the classic “fight-flight-freeze or appease,” and we can make stress work for us by the correct appraisal, thereby turning a threat response into an energizing one.
So what do you need to do to make stress your ally? According to well-renowned stress researcher Kelly McGongigal, it is as simple as changing your mindset and perception of stress and Id like to leave you with a few ideas on how to go about this.
- Change your self talk. Think about this. You are about to deliver a speech, a cake, a presentation, an assignment, a spreadsheet (you get the idea). You notice your heart rate is elevated and your palms are sweaty. Your breathing is a little shallow, and your self-talk goes something like this, “I am so stressed, I hate handing things in. What if this isn’t good enough, I can’t cope with this stress any longer”. Sound familiar? The reframe I am suggesting from your newly acquired healthy self-talk would sound something like this, “I must be doing something that I value because my body is showing me that I really care about the outcome. Aren’t I fortunate to be doing something I love, something that adds meaning to my life? My body is primed to cope with whatever response is coming my way and I will manage it well, thank you body! I will invest in some great self-care later today for being courageous and coping with the very common discomfort of having my work appraised. I have done really well here.” Reframed this way, you are able to thank your body for this alert and reminder of your values and from a place of better self-acceptance and self-understanding, you can treat yourself with kindness and not catastrophize the arousal response.
- Make sure your interpretation filters are accurate, healthy and positive. You have an abundance of inbuilt resources purposed for facing, processing and overcoming stress. You actually do have what it takes!
- Get comfortable with acceptance. Recognize that stress is normal and avoiding it doesn’t work, embracing it and managing it puts you in the driver’s seat. Normalize your body’s responses. If your heart rate is elevated, it is just getting you ready to conquer the challenge. If your breathing is faster, all good, all that extra oxygen to your brain will help you produce clear focused thoughts. Sweaty palms, no sweat, choose to harness this vulnerability to make a meaningful connection rather than going into defense and isolation. In other words, welcome stress. I regularly talk to clients about normalizing stress with an approach that sounds like: “Today I am ready to put out at least 10 fires, I will expect them, normalize them and respond positively to each one ” This way when your child remembers they have a project due as you are getting into the car, or when the traffic piles up as your meeting is due to start, you don’t get blindsided but rather you respond with a cool “I’ve got this, I will employ my coping resources and manage this arousal alert positively. Fire number one is under my belt, only nine more to go” This not only normalizes stress but allows you to view it with humour and creativity.
- Allow excessive stress to be your permission slip for matching self-care. Some stress cues point to very difficult and burdening realities, for instance having a child who is ill or having a financial crisis to overcome. Most stress can be reframed in a more helpful way than the classic fight flight freeze or appease response but for those stressors that have really stopped you in your tracks, making space for them and in equal measure is paramount. When you are required to navigate significant stress, consistent, and nurture is essential to keep your tank replenished.
I trust that this article will inspire you to think intentionally about how you are appraising daily stress and as a consequence whether stress is building your self-efficacy or breaking your confidence and robbing your joy. Enjoy trialing the challenge reframe; I can guarantee it will increase your quality of life.
If you find it difficult to manage your stress or if you need assistance with processing a specific stressor, engaging a professional can be very helpful. At Living Well Psychology Clinic we value the privilege of working with clients who are doing just this, and reaching out is a phone call or email away!
Marguerite has over ten years of experience in private practice, delivering client centered evidence-based interventions to a range of presenting problems. Marguerite holds two Masters degrees in Psychology, the first in Counselling Psychology and the second in Clinical Psychology. Marguerite enjoys working with a range of presentations and works with both individuals and couples.
Marguerite is an associate member of the Australian Psychological Society and is registered to provide clinical psychology services through Medicare. This means that under an appropriate referral, clients are able to access Medicare rebates for the psychological services that she provides.