Stress has been a part of everyday life since the dawn of humankind. Successful people know how to use stress to their advantage instead of letting stress use them. They cultivate a sense of balance by taking a big-picture view of stress. They learn to focus and take action on the internal changes needed to create more resilience to the inevitable uncertainties of life.
Let’s take a closer look at what stress is. Stress is a natural reaction in the brain to a perceived threat. Our heartbeat goes up. Stress hormones are released in the body for a fight, flight or freeze reaction in preparation to defend ourselves. Once the threat is neutralized, our body, mind and emotions return to a state of homeostasis or balance.
This is good. This is how we have survived as a human race. Psychologists say our stress response is triggered by our “negativity bias,” a patterned response wired into our brains that constantly scans the environment for threat in order to keep us “safe.” In modern times, this stress response can alert us to get out of the way of a car with a texting driver or warn us that our lifestyle is out of tune with our optimal health. It can give us our “performance edge” in a meeting or presentation or literally keep us one step ahead of the competition while running a race.
However, when stress becomes chronic or ongoing, it becomes unhealthy for us physically. Our bodies cannot sustain the deluge of stress hormones that keep us in a hyper state of alert. It also impairs our mental and emotional health as we begin to form sustained negative patterns of thought and consequent emotions that become embedded in the neural pathways of our brain. This process is called neuroplasticity, our brain’s amazing ability to adapt and change according to repeated experiences. Neuroplasticity can also be a double-edged sword depending on whether our repeated experiences are positive or negative.
Would you like to use stress to your advantage instead of having it use you? Here are some suggestions to get you on the road to mastering stress:
- Create opportunities to become aware of what causes YOU stress. Different things trigger stress for different people. Mindfulness or the habit of pausing and observing what is going on within you (thoughts, feelings, body sensations) when you begin to feel tense or resistant is a great way to pinpoint your triggers.
- Note the unique ways that stress is helpful and the ways it is an obstacle for you. If a deadline prompts you into planning and taking action on micro steps with micro deadlines to accomplish the overarching deadline on time, then this is “good stress” for you. If, however, deadlines make you freeze with inaction, where you ruminate about the missed deadlines in the past and how awful it was for your career, then this is “bad stress” for you. This chronic pattern of dealing with deadlines holds you back from achieving what you want.
- Take action on the stress that is an obstacle on the path towards your success. Often, just this awareness can be a big step forward in change. If deadlines are an obstacle for you, explore ways to make them more manageable. Then actually DO the steps required to make them less overwhelming no matter how uncomfortable at first. Recognize that YOU must set the new pattern in your brain. No one or nothing else can. With neuroplasticity, you can rest assured that it’s the actual doing, not thinking or talking about, that creates the experiences needed to rewire your brain to have a positive response to deadlines.
The bottom line is this, success in your work and your life depends on being aware and intentional with how you respond to the external environment of events and people. It also depends on being aware and intentional with how you respond to your internal environment of thoughts and emotions caused by the patterns that have been wired into your brain through repeated experiences of the past.
Don’t let stress get in the way of your success. Become aware of how you create stress and change what needs to be changed so that you can engage with the world each day with the most energy and enthusiasm possible. If you need help along the way, you can always give me a call.
Jo-Aynne von Born, Executive Coach, Work/Life Strategist