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Stop Stressing About Stress

Make stress your friend (maybe even your bit¢h) with a simple attirude adjustment.

If you clicked onto this post expecting to find a collection of strategies to cope with the pressures of everyday introvert life you will be surprised. While these strategies certainly have their place (especially exercise, healthy eating and meditation) what I want to explore here examines the nature of stress at a deeper level.

Let's be frank...stress is a killer. Research shows that stress is the number one health threat in the US (World Health Organisation), that 70-90% of doctor visits are due to stress-related issues (American Stress Institute) and that stress is linked to the six leading causes of death (American Psychological Association). But it is not the stress itself that does all the damage. Remember - we all view the world through our own unique sets of filters. So what is damaging is our perception of the stressors in our life.

Happiness expert Shawn Achor's research has led him to conclude that the way we perceive stress is one of the four main qualities that sustain happiness (the others being optimism, social connections and having a sense of purpose). As discussed in the previous post, being upset is not necessarily the opposite of being happy - rather it is apathy. Similarly, we must not confuse experiencing stress as the opposite of happiness. In fact, happiness requires a measure of stress because it is necessary to achieve our potential.

EUSTRESS=USE STRESS Achor suggests that we should begin by re-framing our negative thinking about stress and instead perceive stresses as 'challenges.' Anthony Robbins has popularised the notion of 'eustress'; derived from the Greek prefix eu (meaning "good") and stress, literally meaning "good stress". He explains that many people rob themselves of the chance to reach their potential by shying away from stressful situations. This is a mistake because the absence of any tension or pressure usually creates a dull, stagnant life.

As a former competitive bodybuilder, I know firsthand what is required to grow muscle in the form of training stress. Without adequate tension the muscles have no reason to adapt and grow. Even maintaining your physique requires a measure of training stress; otherwise your muscles quickly wither and lose strength. It is not much of a stretch to see everyday stress and personal development in the same light.

Importantly, Robbins points out that since our stress level is self-imposed we have the power to use it intelligently and purposefully to drive us towards our goals. The human brain actually works best in the presence of this tension, speeding up to cope with the task at hand and creating new neurons designed to cope with future stresses. When handled properly, stress can improve cognitive ability, increase productivity and memory, and even improve our health by encouraging the body to adapt to become more resilient.

Stress can also be a bonding experience. I know this from my own life, having grown much closer to my wife after the death of our daughter. In addition, some of the greatest human achievements were attained in the midst of great stress (e.g. Olympic Games events, combat, deadlines).

Studies have found that our mindset about stress makes a big difference in how it affects us. People who view stress as 'bad' are more negatively affected in terms of happiness and health. Those who view it as 'motivating' reported 23 percent fewer symptoms such as headaches, backaches and fatigue, even though they experienced the same amount of stress. Australian motivational speaker Kerwin Rae has a special mantra when encountering a stressful task, simply repeating to himself: "This is simple. This easy. This is fun!" Try it yourself - it's surprisingly effective.

It is unrealistic to think that we can live a stress-free life. What we can do is re-frame it as a challenge rather than a threat and even embrace it to grow as people and move us closer to our full potential.

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