One mindset trick to change your stress response

How to reframe stress and see it positively

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I was planning to be six weeks out of home, with a heavy travel schedule last year. Traveling is stressful. Especially when you are checking in and out of hotels, waiting in airports, visiting around fourteen different cities and attending three to seven meetings a day. I was worried about the intensity. I thought, “Oh, this is going to be really stressful.” And, of course, I was worried about my body’s and mind’s response to it. Self-care is a top priority for me and in the end, I was worried about my overall health and well-being.

Other than taking care of myself, I learned that there is another trick you can employ to better deal with stress. Not only on during heavy scheduling but also in every stressful situation. It’s the mindset. The way you think about stress changes your stress response.

I watched a TED talk by Kelly McGonigal during the first week of our fellowship, titled “Can We Reframe The Way We Think About Stress?”. McGonigal is an author, psychologist, and educator and holds positions in both the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the School of Medicine, where she develops studies that help people become happier and healthier. She has written several books, including the famous “The Upside of Stress” and “The Joy of Movement.”

In her talk, McGonigal states that what has been teaching for the last years about stress may be doing more harm than good. She states that she has been telling people that stress makes you sick and, after all, she turned stress into the big enemy, as it increases the risk of everything from a simple cold to cardiovascular disease.

But she also mentioned that there is a trick that you can play to deal better with stress. Stress is only harmful to yourself if you believe it is harmful! The way you think about stress makes it harmful. Turns out, a lot of people are dying not because of stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you. The problem is not the stress itself, but the way you think about it.

Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

When you are experiencing a stressful situation, your heart may be pounding, your breath may be fast and short and you may start to sweat. If you interpret these body signals as anxiety and stress and think about them as harmful for your health, well, they become harmful to your health.

But you can also view these signals in your body as a response to be ready for a challenge, to be energized and ready to rock. You change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress. It is exactly what participants were told in a study conducted at Harvard University. Before they went through a social stress test, they were taught to rethink their stress response as helpful.

They were taught that the pounding heart is preparing them for action. If your breathing gets faster, it’s your body getting more oxygen to your brain. And participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance were less stressed, less anxious and more confident. The most fascinating finding to me was how their physical stress response changed. Their blood vessels stayed relaxed, which is a much healthier cardiovascular profile. It actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage.

You have this power as well. Stress is not making you sick. Change your mindset about stress and you change your body’s response as well. Of course, it is not healthy to be in stress mode all the time. But in the study, when participants viewed their stress response as helpful, their body responded differently. 

Next time you are facing a stressful situation, remember that the way you think about stress matters. Stress is your body helping you rise to a challenge. When you reframe stress that way, your body believes you, and your stress response becomes healthier. You are ready for the challenge!

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