How to make stress a powerful ally - Great Life with Kymm Nelsen

How to make stress a powerful ally

“The only thing that is constant is change.”  – Heraclitus

We have all heard some version of the famous “the only constant in life is change” quote from the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus. Some people find this idea a relief because it means life stays fresh and new. Others respond with an exhausted sigh because it means life will never let them rest.

Your mindset about change is closely related to how you deal with stress. How is that? It comes back to what stress is. The term “stress” was created in 1936 by Dr. Hans Selye. He defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” When you must change, you experience a physical response called “stress.”

Think back to the beginning of this article. Some people embrace change and others avoid it or dread it. That means that stress, just like change, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the people who roll with change have learned to make stress their ally instead of their enemy. What is their secret?

Stressor vs. Stress Response
The first step to making stress your ally is to recognize that “stress” is made up of two factors – the stressor and the stress response. The stressor is the thing that caused a response. It’s the change.

A stressor might be a new boss, a difficult interaction with a customer, or lack of rest.  People often feel that they have no control over the stressors in their lives. You can’t control who got hired as the new supervisor. You couldn’t stop that customer from being grumpy. You couldn’t get sleep because the baby was up all night. Stressors seem to come from circumstances beyond your control.

The stress response is how you choose to react to the change. This is where your power is. Scientists have identified three distinct stress responses that cause unique physical responses in your body: 1) fight-or-flight, 2) challenge-and-grow, or 3) tend-and-befriend. Learning to choose the right stress response is the secret to making stress your ally.

Choosing a Stress Response
Fight-or-flight. Early (actually quite extreme) stress studies indicated that there is an irrefutable fight-or-flight response that is hardwired into the biological survival mechanism. The idea is that this automatic stress response kicks in whether you like it or not when you perceive danger (aka change) in your environment. This stress response is the most primitive and instinctual. The fight-or-flight response produces a mix of stress hormones that shuts off the higher levels of thinking and reverts you to primitive reactions.  In fact, cutting edge research by Alia Crum shows that having a fight-or-flight mindset is at the root of the negative physical effects we associate with stress. This might be a good thing if a tiger is chasing you, but not so good if you are walking on stage to do a presentation.

Challenge-and-grow. Two other stress responses offer choices that you can leverage when you aren’t being chased by a tiger. When you recognize that your life isn’t in danger, you can choose a challenge-and-grow stress response. This option is best when the situation offers you an opportunity to hone your skills and grow from the change that is happening. When you are walking on stage to do a presentation or sitting down for your performance review, your decision to embrace the challenge and grow signals your body to release a different mix of stress hormones. This mix includes neurological activators that wake up your brain and help you perform at your best. Those same activators enable your brain to integrate what you learned during stress recovery.

Tend-and-befriend. The third option when a tiger isn’t chasing you is called the tend-and-befriend stress response. This reaction harkens back to our improved chances of survival as members of a group versus the high risk of being isolated and alone. When a situation arises that offers an opportunity to build or strengthen relationships, you can choose to extend your social connections. That decision activates a stress hormone mix that includes oxytocin, which causes you to become more sensitive toward and aware of others. This response helps you build strong business partnerships, deepen understanding within teams, and bond more closely with friends and family.

Your moment of choice
The trick to the making stress your ally is to be aware when the first biological stress signals start.  You feel the adrenaline hit and your heart beat increases. This is the moment when you decide what type of response you will have. Teach yourself to recognize that signal and do a quick assessment of the situation. If you’re not being chased by a tiger, then decide whether you will go with challenge-and-grow or tend-and-befriend. Both options let you leverage the stress energy into a powerful ally that will move you forward toward your goals.

Written by Kymm Nelsen

I am the founder and managing director of Great Life Training, a company focused on transforming the workplace. I am a PhD student researching how to leverage healthy stress as an empowering force in business.

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