Stress has become a modern obsession, but is trying to get rid of it really the best idea?
Some of us wear it in false modesty like an endurance medal, while others proclaim how hard they work to banish it through mindfulness or exercise.
The truth is that stress is inescapable. Bearing that in mind, Susan David, writing for Harvard Business Review, says we should change focus and embrace it as a powerful tool, rather than fight a perpetual battle against it.
She bucks the popular view by asserting: “You don’t need to get rid of stress to live a happy, fulfilling life.
“Many self-help models suggest that a satisfying life can only be found when you get rid of negative thoughts and feelings. But in my work on ‘emotional agility’ I’ve found that attempting to get rid of stress can actually make you more stressed.”
Ride the storm instead
Instead of trying to ignore or squash stressful feelings, Susan’s advice is to acknowledge and accept the emotional effects of a situation, ride the storm, then emerge with more strength and resilience.
Disguising feelings under a blanket of positive thoughts or actions might do nothing to quell the stress. Then our failure will make us even more stressed, creating a vicious circle.
Taking the stress response of anxiety and fear back to basics, it is our bodies’ natural weapon when we encounter perceived danger. It speeds our ability to escape both physically and mentally, and it’s crucial to our survival. So why don’t we harness it to help us achieve?
These are Susan’s top three strategies:
1. Change how you think about stress. Altering your take on the physical symptoms you experience when stressed is a sure way to improve your health according to a study by Health Psychology. If you see stress as an instrument to fire you up when you meet testing demands or threats, you are paving the way to push forward rather than stalling.
“When your heart starts beating fast and your palms get sweaty, thank your body: now you can walk into the meeting or interaction feeling ready for anything. This strategy isn’t denial or ‘thinking positively’; it is engaging with our evolutionary reality.”
2. Detach yourself and redefine your self image. “Feeling stressed” is different to “being stressed” – a phrase that indicates this state defines who we are and there is no avoiding it. Simple rewording from “I am stressed” to “I feel stressed” can be enough to break the habit. Susan calls it “unhooking”.
“Try rephrasing your anxiety in your head. Once you step back, even just a bit, you’ll gain the perspective needed to move forward.”
3. Ask yourself why you feel stressed. Take time to delve deeper into your emotional stress response and what triggers it. Look honestly at how you think and behave when you feel stressed and what patterns you recognise that could be altered.
If relieving stress is a battle in itself, why not welcome it, work with it and use it to your advantage?