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Harnessing Stress for Good

85% of Australians will experience stress on the job within the next twelve months, resulting in 20 MILLION sick days. This will cost the Australian economy and private companies nearly $25 BILLION collectively. In the U.S it's estimated at $300 BILLION. In One Year.

It’s small wonder that organisations are now investing in well-being programs and promoting wellness initiatives. Worthy long term enterprise indeed but is there something that you can do now to support yourself when its needed most?

"Your perception of stress influences your body's response to stress." Kelly McGonigal

Knowing that stressful occurrences are inevitably a part of your future, there are a number of measures you can take to not only cope but also prosper through these experiences (many of which were discussed in my previous article on how to Proactively Prepare for Stress). It turns out that by also adjusting your stress mindset (or your perception of stress) you can positively influence your ability to manage your stress response.

According to health psychologist and lecturer from Stanford University Kelly McGonigal, stress is not the problem, it's our perception of stress that can lead to a poor mind-body response. This notion is supported by previous work suggesting that it is our cognitive appraisal of stress that determines whether it is harmful and how we will respond to it.

Think about your parents and how they perceive stressors in their lives....chances are it's quite different to how you may perceive life stressors. Think about your spouse, your siblings, your best mate.... it’s also likely that they too perceive stressors in their lives differently. The reality is, some of us thrive during times of stress, rising to the challenge, excited and motivated whereas others resort to fight or flight, feelings of helplessness and inaction. Some of us have a negative stress response to a particular situation whereas some of us flourish under the same circumstances. Why is this the case? The short answer is that we all perceive stress differently.

According to McGonigal, there are 3 protective beliefs that influence our perception and response to stressors:

  1. Your bodies response to stress is helpful.

  2. You are able to handle and even learn and grow from the stress in your life.

  3. Stress as something that everyone deals with.

In order to interpret your initial stress response as a signal of meaning rather than of inadequacy, McGonigal says that you need courage and self-compassion.

Possessing high self-efficacy (the belief in your ability to meet the challenges you face) creates a platform for courage. When you first experience a situation that activates your stress response, cultivate the belief that it is possible to transform the stress into a positive rather than interpret it as purely negative. View stress as an opportunity to learn and grow. Take a deep breath to initiate your relaxation response which floods your body with acetylcholine, dopamine and other neurotransmitters that emit a calming effect, counteracting the stress hormones (cortisol and adrenalin) that your stress response elicited. Next, avoid listening to your inner critic that is often triggered with your stress response and instead genuinely believe in your ability to cope and prosper. Be kind to yourself.

The latest evidence indicates that not having any stress in your life is worse for your health than having stress in your life and managing it well. Stress can encourage us to reach out to others, help us overcome obstacles and motivate us to achieve our goals. In fact researchers have determined that having a positive mindset towards stress can lead us to a more optimistic outlook, increase our drive and compassion and even boost our productivity at work!

So, I suppose you could say that stress has been given a bad rap. You now have the opportunity to harness the energy that stress initially generates and make use of the cleverness of your body’s initial stress response. Make stress the stimulus for your initiative, effort and discipline, enable it to be a force for good.

Kirsten works with individuals and organisations to help them meet and rise above the challenges they encounter. Contact her today to support you in your endeavours for 2018!

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