In 1936, endocrinologist Hans Selye performed experiments on rats. He studied the effects of a new hormone, and so he injected the hormone into lab rats, hoping to observe how it affects them.
The rats soon became sick, and developed bleeding ulcers around their stomach. Though bad for the rodents, Selye was delighted, since it seemed to fit the picture he was looking for.
However, after administering different solutions to a different group of rats, Selye grew puzzled.
No matter what he injected, the results always were the same: Sick, sad rats.
Eventually Selye was hit by an insight. Maybe it’s not the injection, but the process of getting injected. In other words, maybe the rats grew sick, because of how stressful the whole procedure had been.
And so a new idea was born: Stress is bad for your health.
The Scientist’s Mistake
Selye found a myriad of ways to put his new idea under the test.
He stressed rats by administering electric shocks, feeding them toxic drugs, putting them in solitary confinement (or overcrowded cages), or forcing them to exercise without rest.
In every case, the rats grew sick, giving more credibility to the idea that stress is bad for your health.
And Selye’s conclusion would be legit, if it weren’t for one big mistake:
What we call stress is not stress.
When everyday people describe their stress, they talk about never-ending to-do lists, the pressure to provide, relationship struggles, and other daily hassles.
This is nothing like the stress of a lab rat being shocked unavoidably or forced exercise without rest.
The stress of the rats was unpredictable, uncontrollable, and meaningless. That’s why these rats grew ill and suffered. But the vast majority of human stressors are not like that.
Selye later on recognized that not all forms of stress are equal, yet the idea still stuck; stress is bad for your health.
And, as we will see, no bad idea stays unpunished.
Believing “Stress is Bad” is Bad
In 1998, 30.000 Americans were asked to describe their stress. More specifically, researchers wanted to know a) how much stress they experience, and b) whether they believe stress is harmful for their health.
Eight years forward, the researchers looked through public records to identify who of these former participants had died.
As it turns out, high levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. However, this was only true for people who also believed that stress is harmful.
People who reported high levels of stress, but did not see it as harmful, were not more likely to die.
In fact, their risk of dying was the lowest in the study – even lower than for people experiencing low levels of stress.
In other words, stress isn’t killing people. It’s stress reactivity that does the killing.
Stress reactivity starts with the metaphor that is buried inside the word “stress” itself: humans are like I-beams that crack and break when a weight is put on them.
If that is true then that weight — that “stress” — is harmful and should be avoided and escaped.
That reason that is so toxic is it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you meet stress with an attitude of “this is too much” and “I don’t want this”, you turn an otherwise natural and normal bodily experience into something dangerous. Your whole body will then shift into resistance, and react as if it is under attack.
Even a small challenge will then be a sign that something is wrong, leading you to become stressed about being stressed. You begin to avoid areas and activities where “stress” naturally shows up.
You don’t go to a friend’s birthday party, because it might be stressful. You skip on opportunities to give a presentation at work, because it’s stressful. And you may even stop exercising and eating healthy altogether, because, you’ve guessed it, it’s stressful.
In an attempt to get away from stress, you restrict yourself more and more, making your life smaller, and your problems bigger (which, ironically, causes even more “stress”).
It’s not stress that’s harmful — it’s your reactivity to stress that’s harmful.
What Stress Can Do For You
If you want to develop a more helpful posture, you need to rethink stress.
During stress, your body is flooded with hormones such as Cortisol, Adrenaline, and Noradrenaline, which increase your heart rate, make you alert, and get you pumped up and ready for action.
In other words, stress provides your body with a surplus of energy. And it’s now up to you to a) interpret what this surplus of energy means, and b) decide what to do with it.
We already know that a lot of people choose to interpret stress as something harmful, making them go to war with themselves.
However, we can also meet stress with an attitude of openness.
Psychologist Kelly McGonigal writes in her book “The Upside of Stress”:
“The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it. By rethinking and even embracing stress, you can change its effect on everything, from your physical health and emotional well-being to your satisfaction at work and hopefulness about the future.”
We can embrace stress as something that fuels us with energy, as something that tells us we’re doing something meaningful (after all, we wouldn’t get stressed about something that we don’t care about).
By embracing our stress in this way, we might still feel lousy. However, we wouldn’t get stressed about feeling lousy, and we certainly wouldn’t suffer the same bad consequences on our health and life.
So let’s talk about how to change our posture towards stress.
Change Stress To Meaning
Step #1 Acknowledge Stress
Before anything can change, we need to recognize our experience of stress.
Too often we are caught up in our own experience, and don’t even realize when it’s happening. We are too caught up in the movie, that we don’t realize we’re still sitting in the cinema.
The first step then, is to notice and acknowledge our experience of stress when it’s currently happening.
Step #2 Embrace Stress
Next, and this is the hard part, allow yourself to feel the stress. As it is, not as you fear it to be.
Where can you feel it? And how does it feel in your body?
Avoidance makes us disconnect from ourselves, pushing the stress away into the future. Embracing the stress on the other hand means sitting still with ourselves, feeling what’s going on in our body, and maybe even moving closer to areas where stress shows up.
It’s not easy, but it will take some of the struggle out of stress. It’s a reaction, an experience. It’s not your enemy.
Here is a verbal trick that will help.
When you notice your bodily reactions to discomfort and challenge, think of it as life making a point. It’s as if life saying: “Here is a point I’d like to stress with you”.
Why embrace stress? Well, gee, if someone said that to you in real life wouldn’t you listen? You wouldn’t cover your ears and run in the other direction, would you?
Embracing your felt stress is setting up the process of “getting the point.”
Step #3 Find importance in Stress
What is at stake here? Why is this challenge you are facing of importance in the first place?
There’s sometimes at stake in your stress. Now that you are listening again,
you can begin to learn what that is.
What is important that is inside stress you are currently experiencing?
Maybe you are stressed about the financial health of your family. Or you are stressed about completing a degree successfully.
Cool. These are important. Life is “stressing a point” with you.
Step #4 Flip Oppression into Choice
Look inside your reactions and see if there are negative motivators lurking there: otherwise you’d feel guilty; you have to; others demand it.
If you find them see if you can flip them.
Nobody like being oppressed, so stop oppressing yourself! Instead, choose the positive qualities you yourself would want to see in your motives and actions.
You care about (and yes, at time, worry about) the financial health of your family because they are important to you. You love them. Love is something to stress, but not something to be stressed about. You are just in a challenging game in which you get the awesome though difficult task of doing the very best you can to be a loving provider. Having life “stress” to you the importance of your love of family is hardly a bad thing.
Similarly, what if instead of jumping through hoops to get a grade or to avoid failure in your degree program, you did an awesome job of studying to satisfy your curiosity or to pursue truth? Is it OK to let life “stress” to you the importance you yourself give to learning and to the truth? Of course it is.
These examples show that when you can find positive meaning and purpose in life challenges, your experience of stress can transform from barriers littering a life path of avoidance to reactions illuminating a life path of growth and contribution. You still stressed, in the simple, healthy, physical activation sense, but instead of it being a burden, it becomes proof that your are living for something greater than yourself.
When you let go of the agenda of trying to control stress, stress is not stressful.
It’s just life asking you to connect with something bigger than yourself. Do that, you can stop suffering and start living.
Both stressed and fulfilled.