We all have it; we all feel it. As consultants partnering with clients on significant change initiatives, we often see and share the stress that comes from navigating the big hairy goals, the accelerated timeframes, the unexpected hurdles, the moving targets, and all the rest. I recently had a client tell me they were under such pressure and stress they’re “dead inside” – while tongue in cheek, the comment reflects the type of despair that stress can trigger.
You know that adage about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? When it comes to stress, it’s not the having it that makes you stronger, it’s how you THINK about it that is key, according to Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.
“Stress increases the risk of dying, except when people have a sense of purpose. Stress increases the risk of depression, except when people see a benefit in their struggles. Stress is paralyzing, except when people perceive themselves as capable. Stress is debilitating, except when it helps you perform. Stress makes people selfish, except when it makes them altruistic.”
In her book, The Upside of Stress, she covers why stress is good for you and how to get good at it. Now, I’ve been told that I don’t seem to get stressed, that I’m perceived as always positive, that I’m calm. Under the surface, that is NOT always true. I get that sinking sensation, the shaking on the inside, the “I’m drowning” feeling… How can stress be remotely good for you and why would I want to get good at it?
Here’s the science I learned – our bodies’ stress response includes the release of oxytocin, the hormone we associate with warm cuddles, which in this context:
- activates social instincts – motivating you to seek support
- enhances empathy – causing you to notice when someone else is struggling
- acts on your body – protecting the cardiovascular system as an anti-inflammatory, helping heart cells regenerate and heal from stress-induced damage
The lessons to take away:
1. Leaning into human connection helps navigate the impacts of stress
- It diminishes and soothes our stress when we have support from others
- It amplifies the release of oxytocin when we reach out to others under stress
→ Human connection enhances stress resilience
2. Changing your mind about stress changes your body’s response to stress
- It is something to navigate rather than strictly mitigate and/or avoid
- It is not necessarily harmful to our mental and/or physical health
→ Seeing stress as helpful triggers the biology of courage
3. Knowing that stress can be good for you improves your outlook
- It helps us stay positive under stress
- It makes going after things that mean a lot, despite the stress that will follow, worth tackling
→ Trusting our ability to handle stress creates hope
The next time you are feeling stress I hope you’ll be reminded to see it as a natural, healthy, and helpful experience and keep building on it.