Surprising facts about stress

Surprising facts about stress
Who would have thought that worrying was actually good for you? Yep, you can make all that pressure work in your favour.

Cast your mind back over the last week, and chances are you can pinpoint half a dozen moments you felt like (simultaneously) crying, shouting, curling up on the couch, writing off a couple of blisteringly honest emails or rocking the work vending machine until it coughed up a Twix. For a feeling that we don’t like and spend so much time and energy trying to avoid, it’s crazy how often stress sneaks up on us. (it’s like some kind of insane neuro-stalker!)

That’s because stress is an inevitable part of life, right up there with taxes and a period that starts the day before you fly to Bora Bora. Studies link too much worry to all sorts of physical and emotional bad guys, from the short-term (headaches, fatigue, insomnia, muscle tension and zero-zip-nada sex drive) to the way worse (heart disease, depression). Which is why conventional thinking has always been (a pretty damn intense) warning to avoid stress at all costs because otherwise you will probably die right on your desk island. Thankfully, that thinking’s starting to change, as more and more experts agree that stress can be a good thing, something you can learn to use to your advantage and emerge from like a boss. As long as you know how to work it.

In her groundbreaking (count ’em nine-million-plus views) TED talk, Stanford U stress-spert and author of The Upside Of Stress, Kelly McGonigal, explained how a simple reframing of our attitude to stress can turn it into a powerful tool. It’s something that will improve our focus and performance in the short term and make us more resilient over time. It also boosts our social connections; when the brain senses stress, it responds by squirting a bunch of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone that makes you hot for cuddles and emotional support.

Indeed, things that you never thought you would be able to achieve – whether at work, in fitness, relationships, finances or an after-hours creative project – could be born out of periods of insane pressure. But when you’re in the throws of the dry-mouth, clammy-hands, kill-me-I’m-dying stress-spiral, the question is, how exactly?

The first step is to identify you’re stressed. It seems obvious, but in fact, it’s an emotion that likes to play dress-ups and disguise itself as anger, anxiety, irritability, fear, sadness, self-doubt or a need to eat all the chocolate. When those sorts of masking emotions arrive on the scene, it’s time to take a step back and ask yourself, “What am I really feeling?”

“Stress can be a personal experience,” says life coach Johanna Parker (heartsparks.com.au). “It’s important to understand how stress presents for you. When you have a clear picture of what that looks like, you can start to look at how you can address it.” So pull back and notice the looping negative self-talk, the catastrophising, fidgeting, flight impulse, cravings or that weird finger-tapping thing that you do as signs that you’re in this.

After acknowledging you’re stressed, it becomes possible to trace the crazy back to its root, and figure out if it’s the healthy kind of stress or the going-nowhere-fast variety. “Good stress is the kind that’s in line with your values and ambitions,” life coach Roxanie Lebsanft (barehands.com.au) tells us. “You’re stressed about something because it matters to you.”

Bad stress, on the other hand, is more often connected to obligations, expectations or your own unhealthy comparison talk. “You’ll know because you’ll be saying, ‘I should’, ‘I ought’ or ‘I have to’,” says Lebsanft. “With the excited, lovely stress that gives you the energy to move forward, you’ll hear yourself saying you want to.”

In either case, it’s also a good idea to quarantine the problem. Our tendency, of course, is the exact opposite: let today’s problem combine with yesterday’s and tomorrow’s to prove that now Everything. Is. Ruined… Forever.

“It’s the 90/10 rule,” explains Leo Willcocks, author of Destress To Success. “So 10 per cent of what you’re feeling now is related to the actual problem, and 90 per cent is your history.”

In more clinical terms, it’s called compound association. And in everyday speak? Basically the crappy date that you’re experiencing is making you re-feel every other dud hook-up that you’ve ever had and all the negative emotion about never finding love that’s built up gradually over time. “Ask yourself, why is this really bothering me,” Willcocks suggests. “Usually by the time you’ve asked yourself that four or five times, you’ve got to the real core of the issue and you’ll know why the current situation is causing so much stress.”

Now comes the moment you need to separate what you feel from what you know. You don’t know you’re getting the sack over one work-fail, you just feel like you are. Taking the imaginary out of the actual brings the mind into real focus and that’s where the power of stress comes in. “Understanding what’s perceived and what’s real helps you stay in the facts,” Parker explains. “Often the situation is not as bad as the story we’ve created about it in our heads.” Free from the overwhelm, you’re more likely to be able to sit down to the business of solving the issue.

The tendency when we’re in a state of maximum freakout is to try too many fixes at once. Quick! Glass of wine/dump partner/start your CV/binge-shop online. To let your stress focus you, choose one problem and go at it, using all the adrenalin in your body. Finish the essay that’s been hanging over you. Run a faster 5K than ever. Face your tax. “Choosing one thing lets you channel your energy in a productive and meaningful way,” says Parker. “It lets you pull back and often see a quick win as well.”

If you’ve established the stress comes into the Someone Else’s Issue category, the quick win might be establishing a boundary – whether politely declining a request, or in your own mind, consciously rejecting the expectation that’s been put on you. If it’s a stress related to your values, tell yourself the challenge excites you because it’s getting you closer to a goal. “Progression comes through stress,” says Willcocks. “Anything you’re proud of, you didn’t do without blood, sweat and tears. You conquered stress to get there.”

When you’re too much in the emotional foetal position to tackle the challenge positively, try a short-term fix. Five minutes of belly breathing (which tricks your brain into thinking it’s super Zen), half an hour pounding the pavement or free-writing in a diary are much better Bandaids than a drink or futile Facebook session. Some studies even show that helping another person not only makes you seem nice, but reduces your stress levels by getting your focus off your own personal sh*tstorm for a moment. Set a strict time limit so you don’t feel like you’re running away from the problem. Once it’s up, run towards the pain.

Speaking of other people. Our natural desire during times of stress is to reach out to other people. This is OK as long as it’s the right person. “A lot of the long-term anxiety and depression related to stress comes from not sharing it,” agrees Lebsanft. “So it’s vital we talk, but with the expectation that the other person doesn’t have to actually fix [the problem] or take responsibility, and vice versa. You need someone who can listen without judgement.” Downloading on a vampire friend who’s only going to point out how it’s even worse than you thought, or oversharing on social media will keep you stuck on a stressy-go-round.

Creating a margin in life is a vital and effective way to make sure the stress you experience stays manageable and helps you achieve. That can mean agreeing on a deadline at work that gives you an extra day than you think you’ll need, not spending down to your last cent every pay cycle, or diarising some do-nothing time. That way, you’re less likely to always be running on empty and equipped with the resources you need to turn stress into output.

After insane pressure, the temptation can be to crawl into bed and stay there forever. And although we’re generally pro-nap, coming down from stress is often easier if you stay active. Whether that’s aimless walking, swimming, or low-key organising, active recovery will not only recharge your batteries but give you the time to reflect on what you’ve achieved. And that’s how you get a head start on any stress-tastrophe (or stess-portunity) coming at you.

Words: Meg Mason
Photos: Getty Images