In my last article I wrote about ‘managing stress’. I mentioned ways in which one can manage the symptoms of stress by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system in the body to calm the body and lower the stress-induced physiological changes such as increased heart rate, breathing and sweaty palms. The modalities I mentioned (breathing, exercise, meditation, mindfulness) are necessary and useful to remain calm. In this article let’s see how we can leverage stress, not just manage it.
Traditionally we have been influenced to view stress and stressful events as being debilitating. It is often believed that stress is bad for our health, relationships, work, cognition and longevity. However this need not be true. Experiencing some amount of stress during our journey to achieve our goals can actually help us focus better and progress faster.
How our body responds to stress and the aftermath appears to hinge on this deep-rooted belief system called the mindset. What exactly is a mindset? Mindset is the default setting of the mind with regard to broad topics and subjects such as health, diet, stress, exercise, politics, etc. It is the overall perspective we have about such subjects which governs the way we perceive a topic, the decisions we make around it and even how our body responds to the decisions we make. For instance, if we have a mindset about exercise that it is painful and boring, we are most likely to not enjoy it, or even benefit adequately from it. If we have a mindset about food that ‘healthy food’ is tasteless and boring, we are less likely to persist with a healthy diet or feel satisfied with it. Mindsets are usually programmed into us from our early years. They get internalised from the messages we receive from around us. This is not always a conscious thing. Very often we don’t really know what our mindset about something is unless we actually think about it and ask ourselves the question. We often make choices not realising that they are based on our already pre-determined mindset.
The concept of post-traumatic growth is the ability of the body to improve instead of disintegrating even after the most traumatising stressful event. Such events can help us realise our meaning and purpose in life. Something we may never have addressed otherwise. They can bring us closer to people who matter to us, help us identify what we really value in life and focus on that. It can trigger a passion for life, create more joy and help us develop a sense of gratitude.
If you view a difficult relationship as a challenge rather than something that debilitates you, you are more likely to deal with it appropriately and not be destroyed by it.
For instance, talking to people through this pandemic I have found much of this happening. While the pandemic in itself has been stressful for everyone, it has caused many people to re-think about values, relationships, their health, their work and what exactly it means to them. People have become more serious about improving health. Some have quit jobs that they found more detrimental than beneficial. Some have started spending more time nurturing their relationships and valuing them. Sometimes a stressful event helps us think differently about everything.
Research from Stanford University has revealed that the ability to handle stress and even grow from it depends on the way we view stress and what we believe about it. For instance, if we believe that stress is essentially debilitating then our ability to recover from the stressor is limited. But if we believe that stress is empowering and can even aid in growth, our ability to recover from it and even grow from it is enhanced.
Our mindset about stress has the capacity to influence how our body and mind respond to stress, especially in the long term. When you view the ‘stressor’ as a challenge rather than a threat, you are more likely to respond more positively and be adaptive to the event. For instance, if you view your interview/exam/work as a challenge you are more likely to approach it with an open mind and do better than if you view it as a threat and feel anxious or overwhelmed. If you view a difficult relationship as a challenge rather than something that debilitates you, you are more likely to deal with it appropriately and not be destroyed by it. If you see stress as a natural phenomenon that is ubiquitous and unavoidable, but also something that can be life-enhancing, you are more likely to be positively influenced by it and grow from it. By altering our mindset we can leverage stress to our benefit.
There are numerous real-life stories of people who have overcome the most horrendous experiences and not just live to survive but to thrive. One such example is the life of Dr Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and a holocaust survivor. His book, ‘A man’s search for meaning’ is worth reading. Dr Frankl says that man’s deepest desire is to search for meaning and purpose in life. His mindset about his circumstances (horrific as they were), and the stress thereof, enabled him to not just survive the concentration camps, but helped him thrive after getting out by helping millions of people with his work.
Researchers Dr Crum and colleagues found that when participants of a research study were exposed to positive images of stress that suggested that stress was a positive thing that helps you grow, they actually did better, had better physical and mental health, better performance at work, less aches and pains and less anxiety. People who were exposed to the usual images of stress as being debilitating did not do better when exposed to it. This research showed the effect of even brief exposures to attitudes towards stress (as being enhancing or debilitating) can drastically change how one reacts to any kind of stress.
Rethinking stress and how it can affect us depending on how we view it can be a gamechanger. Considering that we are going to experience stress in varying degrees through our lives, having a more positive and empowering mindset can only benefit us.
Following a stressful event, some questions to ask yourself:
What can I learn from this experience; how can I reset my priorities; how can I improve and renegotiate my relationships, values, expectations and goals.
And, how can I benefit or be grateful for from this experience?
The author is a lifestyle medicine physician. firstname.lastname@example.org www.drsheelanambiar.com