How to Make Stress Your Friend

The popular conception of stress is that it is toxic or irredeemingly bad. But is it? Recent studies suggest that it is not stress itself that is harmful, but rather your perception of stress that could be potentially damaging to your health.

Viewing stress as unwholesome can lead you to cope in ways that are less constructive, such as turning to drinking to “release” tension, procrastinating to avoid stressors, or imagining worst-case scenarios. In contrast, viewing stress more positively can encourage you to cope in ways that can help you thrive, whether it is facing challenges, seeking social support, finding meaning in adversity, or developing mastery.

Psychologists have found that the ability to embrace stress requires a high tolerance for ambivalence, namely understanding that two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time. It can be true that going through something stressful can make you sick or depressed, but it can also be true that the same stressful experience can ultimately make you more resilient over time. Stress leaves an imprint on your brain that prepares you to handle similar stress the next time you encounter it—a process termed stress inoculation.

Alia Crum, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has noted that in many cases, stress hormones actually induce growth and release chemicals into the body that rebuild cells, synthesize proteins and enhance immunity, leaving the body even healthier than it was before. The issue, then, is not in the stress response itself but in how we channel or employ this response. In her book, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal writes, “The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.”

So, how can you embrace stressful moments, rather than avoid them? Mindfulness.

Mindfulness practice can offer you the space to think differently about stress and reframe your response to it. Eric Langshur and Nate Klemp, PhD. suggest the following Notice-Shift-Rewire practice to “alter” your stress mindset:

#1. Notice

Let the experience of stress be your reminder to:

  • Notice what is happening here and now
  • Notice the sensations that accompany stress
  • See if you can even notice the part of you that favors the pleasurable experience of ease over the discomfort of stress.
  • Try to catch yourself in this mind state of stress aversion
#2 Shift

Shift back to non-judgmental awareness. See what happens when you simply:

  • Observe the acceleration of your heartbeat
  • Observe the tension in your jaw, shoulders or stomach
  • Observe racing of anxious thoughts
  • Ask yourself – what if that sensation of tension wasn’t labeled as ‘bad’?
#3 Rewire

Rewire by staying with whatever is arising.  Let go of any effort to change your state.

Langshur and Klemp note that by resisting and avoiding stress, you diminish your capacity to effectively navigate it. But by integrating Notice-Shift-Rewire into your daily mindfulness practice, you can turn stress into an advantage and an ally. Befriending stress through mindfulness allows you to transform it into a powerful tool that can help you to face and overcome the inevitable challenges in life that can—and will—arise. To find out more about working with me or any of our therapists who specialize in mindfulness, click here.