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One of the most frequent questions I get in the course of my work as a stress expert is, how do I eliminate stress from my life? There is no doubt in my mind that at first glance, my answer is shocking to most of those who hear it.
There are two things you need to know about stress-free living: One is that it is a myth no matter who you are. All life is stimulus that knocks you out of equilibrium, and you will stop stressing only when you die.
The second is that while you can’t deny or eliminate stress or anxiety, you can often understand and harness it better, and sometimes even use it as your guide and superpower. And if stress can be used to your advantage, why would you want to eliminate it entirely?
The Stress Spectrum
The key to mastering stress is to see it in a more nuanced way, across a spectrum, differentiating between good stress, toxic stress and tolerable stress. Because when it comes to stress, our perceptions matter, and the stories we tell ourselves over and over again about what is happening matter even more.
Stress is less about what’s happening to you and more about how you think about what’s happening—and how you make sense of it. Our perceptions and the stories we continue to tell ourselves become the lens through which we interpret everything: as a punishing threat or as an opportunity for and invitation to change.
Yes, there is a type of stress that is harmful. Toxic stress involves strong, ongoing activation of your body’s fight-or-flight response. This stress becomes deadly when it is unrelieved and when protective factors are absent (more on those a little later).
Good stress, on the other end of the spectrum, is life saving and life enhancing. It can help you meet a tough deadline, ace a test, feel the excitement of a new romance or give a great speech. Pioneering research by neuroimmunologist Firdaus Dhabhar shows a range of benefits associated with this kind of acute stress response. Dhabhar’s experiments show that short spurts of stress can even help you recover better from surgery.
Between toxic and good stress lies tolerable stress, which often looks and feels very much like bad stress except that is relieved and/or accompanied by protective factors. Tolerable stress is at the heart of what poets and philosophers wrote about when they told us that “the obstacle in the path becomes the path” and “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Tolerable stress helps you grow, learn and evolve as a human being. It can help you make sense of the world, see patterns, both good and bad, and uncover novel insights and solutions forged from the pain of difficulty and adversity. Our stories and narratives, on the one hand, and intentional self-care, on the other, are at the heart of transforming toxic stress to tolerable stress.
Optimizing Good Stress, Protecting Against Toxic Stress
One of my earliest interviews as a CNN stress columnist was with Dr. Michael Gervais, a high-performance psychologist. Gervais works with some of the world’s most elite athletes to help them develop strategies to not only perform better, but to thrive under extreme pressure.
According to Gervais, “All stress means is that we are engaging in change. Everyone wants to grow, but somehow no one wants to change.” But you can’t have one without the other. He trains his athletes to see extreme stress as a necessary pathway to excellence and far from avoiding it, to see their breaking point as the pathway to breakthroughs.
“Pressure can be an amazing gift,” Gervais told me. “It sharpens our mind, sharpens our focus … Growth is impossible without change. You can’t have one without the other. And all stress means is that we are engaging in change.”
Moving from stress as a game-ender to a game-changer involves three important steps:
1. Disciplining Your Mind
Gervais sees a disciplined mind as the key to peak performance. And he works with athletes to approach that in the same way they do any other training: practice, practice, practice. He recommends gaining insights and taking inventory of your internal narratives and dialogue through journaling, talk therapy, or even texting daily observations and insights to yourself or someone else you trust. As you understand and master your internal dialogue in safe environments, Gervais observed, your response will slowly evolve to become automatic, reflexive and affirming, even in hostile or stressful circumstances.
2. Calming Your Body
Most of us pass days, months and years going from peak of high stress to peak of high stress at a frantic pace. And while you may not be able to control your deadlines, the realities of your job or career, or even your personal circumstances, you can make a conscious effort to insert periods of low to no stress throughout your days.
Much like the urgent advice to make sure you’re not sitting all day long, you should also not be stressing all day by intentionally inserting moments of pause throughout your day. Formal mindfulness practices like meditation or yoga can be potent protective factors, but equally important (and perhaps far more realistic) are the micro-moments of calm, rest and stillness sprinkled throughout your day: spending a few minutes with your eyes closed, taking deep breaths, going for a walk around the block, sniffing a calming essential oil, reading a chapter of a good book, spending some time in nature, walking or cuddling your pet, even taking a short nap. All of these have research validating their effectiveness in creating a sense of calm and well-being. Research also shows that exercise, in its many forms, is a powerful stress reliever. Gervais recommended simple breathing, which he finds to be the best tool to calm your body.
The bottom line, though, is that any protective factor you choose only counts if you actually do it. And if you don’t, it won’t work, no matter how great your need and how good your intentions.
3. Using Stress as a Design Prompt
Oprah Winfrey famously said: “I say the universe speaks to us, always, first in whispers. And if you don’t pay attention to the whisper, it gets louder and louder and louder. I say it’s like getting thumped upside the head. If you don’t pay attention to that, it’s like getting a brick upside your head. You don’t pay attention to that—the brick wall falls down.”
Our lives are moving at an unprecedented pace and intensity, with both good and bad news coming at us from multiple platforms and devices at any given moment of the day and night. Stress is about as a good an early warning system as we have about the fact that something is not working. It is said that the “obstacle in the path becomes the path.” And while this realization may not change the discomfort we feel, it does give us the ability to enter the space with curiosity:
What is not working?
Why is it not working?
How can I change it?
And what other possibilities might there be?