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How to Transform Your Stress Into Insane Productivity, According to Harvard Psychologists

Stress is sometimes unavoidable — here’s how to turn it into your best friend.

Stress is sometimes unavoidable — here’s how to turn it into your best friend.

We know that stress is bad for us, and that it causes everything from health problems to lost productivity.

However, while there are proven ways to reduce stress, sometimes it’s unavoidable in this journey called life. In fact, if you’re doing great things, it’s inevitable.

That’s why new research suggests that much of that stress we encounter can actually be harnessed in positive ways and turned into productivity.

Some of the psychological experts in the Harvard Business Review challenge us to think about a time when we were most successful and performing at our highest level — were you motivated by stress during this time?

The answer is most likely a strong ‘yes’, which shows us that stress doesn’t always have to be negative when it is handled in the right way.

Here are a few things to keep in mind that the experts at Harvard say will allow us to maximize the benefits of stress, while reducing the damaging effects it can have on our bodies, relationships and careers:

Beauty is in the eye of the stress-holder.

Stress is inevitable; if you don’t have it, you are a rare species (and are likely living a pretty unproductive life).

The first step to dealing with stress is to recognize it — then, you can decide what you want to do with it.

You need to make a very important decision, and yes — it is a choice: you need to decide if you will see stress as either enhancing or incapacitating.

“Owning this realization unleashes positive motivation — because deep down we know that things that are important shouldn’t always come easy.”

Alicia and Thomas Crum in Harvard Business Review.

Quite simply, recognize stress as a side-effect of spreading your wings and challenging yourself.

According to Shawn Achor, who is a positive psychology expert, our brain function improves when it re-frames challenges in the positive. If we are positive and concerned (not be confused with worried), our brains are able to expand, allowing for faster processing and increased productivity.

You can achieve this by training your brain to recognize stress as a byproduct of your success, rather than something to dread. It’s akin to working out — nobody really enjoys being sweaty or sore, but it comes with the territory. Think of stress as “brain sweat” when you’re taking on your next intellectual challenge.

Use it.

Stress wasn’t designed to kill us. In fact, back in our caveman era, it served as a very powerful tool to help us avoid dying.

Research suggests that although we might not enjoy it, many of the effects that helped us avoid a hungry tiger eons ago can still help us in today’s modern world.

Alicia and Thomas Crum also discovered that: “Stress hormones actually induce growth and release chemicals into the body that rebuild cells, synthesize proteins and enhance immunity, leaving the body even stronger and healthier than it was before. Researchers call this effect physiological thriving, and any athlete knows its rewards.”

The mere act of framing this stress as a performance enhancer (rather than something you hate), can make all the difference. Research shows that when test-takers do this, they perform stronger, and that this re-framing can even help with public speaking jitters.

We all need somebody to lean on.

Sing it, Bill Withers, sing it. Seriously, though — as noted by Amy Gallo, in the Harvard Business Review article, “Turning Stress into an Asset,” it is extremely important to work on our relationships during times that we are not stressed, so that when the push comes to shove, we do have those ‘go-to’ friends to listen to us when we think we are about to go off the rails.

Who you are hanging around with and building these relationships with, matters too — try to avoid chronic complainers and individuals who harp on things they cannot change, because like negative thoughts and attitudes, complaining and stress is also contagious.

Focus on what you can control

Stephen Hawking once said, “One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist.” If Mother Nature hasn’t figured it out yet, then neither will you.

There are a million and a half things that will be completely out of your control every day, no matter how much effort you put in — so ignore what’s outside of your influence.

In Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, he calls this practice the “Island Experiment”. He suggests you write out a list of stressors and put them into two circles, “islands.” One island holds the things you can control. The other is for the things you can’t. Ignore that second island and choose a single concrete action to take on the first. This will begin to evaporate any unnecessary stress and help move you towards your goals.

Final thoughts: practice makes better.

Yes, better — not perfect. Even when we are talking about stress, practice is the key to learning how to deal with it. As soon as you feel even just a little bit of stress coming on, try practicing some of the techniques we have discussed above. This way, when you really have a ‘when it rains it pours’ kind of day, your body won’t go into that fight or flight mode.

Think about it as if you were training for a marathon: you can’t just expect to run 26.2 miles without a bunch of smaller trial runs in the months leading up to the main event. After all, this game of life is a marathon, not a one-time sprint.

Do you have any tips for using stress in a productive manner? I want to hear from you — leave a comment or give me a shout-out on Twitter!

If you liked this piece, be sure to check out my profile on Medium, and my column in Inc. Magazine.

Originally published at

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