How to Make Stress Work For You

Hi, this is Oliver, your (stress) instructor….. Doooooooowwwwwwwwwn up, doooooowwwwwnnn up, come on more energy!

In many areas of our lives we put ourselves under pressure and view this as a positive thing. We see the purpose of this exercise and what pursuing through that stress will ultimately reward us with. However, when this pressure hits us unexpectedly or in a manner that we did not predict we sometimes lose our “cool”. We can forget to stop and identify the opportunities and rewards that working through this pressure bring.

For example, going to the gym you know that you are putting your body under pressure (stress). You sign yourself up for sweating, being short of breath and discomfort. In fact,  you actually want to feel that discomfort. You know that if you don’t, you haven’t pushed yourself hard enough to obtain the desired outcomes from the exercise. Because you recognise the role this discomfort plays in you gaining reward, you don’t let this feeling perturb you. The rewards in this scenario can be higher level of fitness, aesthetically pleasing body, or increased mental health.

How can stress be a positive thing?

Female doing yoga, sitting on a yoga mat next to a dog

If your boss however drops an important report on your desk late in the afternoon expecting it by 9am tomorrow, you can be caught off guard. Although the same opportunities DO exist, we typically don’t give space in our brain for them to be considered. The rewards could be opportunity to impress your boss, get a win for the company, learn a new skill. We are too overwhelmed with thoughts of the negative outcomes that will occur if we don’t get the report done. Or, we are consumed with the distress that is going to be caused by working through the night.

If we develop a relationship to mental stress that is in line with how we view physical stress, we can develop a positive relationship with it. Stress mentally, like physically is indicative of us growing and developing. We can then look to manage our mental stress as we do our physical stress. Where possible, it’s important to control the load we put on ourselves. We don’t run a marathon a day when trying to get physically fit. We stagger our training and look to improve in increments. So do the same with your mental stress. Be friends with bouts of stress. But it’s important to remember to give your brain time to heal like you would your body after training.

How can you make stress ‘work’ for you?

Now that we have understood the role stress can play in our development, how we can use it effectively? Again, let’s compare how we approach physical workouts with mental workouts. During our physical training sessions, we try to bring our thoughts to executing each repetition at a time. We break it down and focus on what we can control which is that exact movement. Allowing ourselves to focus too much on the ten reps we have to do after this one can overwhelm us. Questioning “How am I ever going to be able to perform the next exercise after the fatigue of this one?” Or starting to wonder what the other people are thinking of us at the gym or on the track can cause us to stop focusing on performing the task and under perform.

The same is with approaching tasks which place us under mental stress. If we think about all the things we need to get done, we can be overwhelmed by the POTENTIAL negative outcomes. We can also become stressed thinking about what other people will think of our work. If you read back over the examples provided, they are all thoughts and focuses which have nothing to do with you actually delivering/executing the task. Therefore, they are not only excessively stress inducing, they are distractions. The key to coping, performing and growing through periods of mental stress is just like physical stress. It requires focusing on what you can control. Boiling it back down to the components of the situation you can control, focusing on them exclusively and performing them to the best of your ability.

How do we stop ourselves from getting overwhelmed?

Remember that in a state of being overwhelmed, we may perceive that failing at the mental task will be fatal. But again, like physical stress, unless there is a chance of death (e.g. you are trying to out run a tiger), any failure is not fatal. It is an opportunity to learn. Deleveraging this level of enormity allows us to utilise the below skills in refocusing ourselves onto the key strategies for obtaining stress to be positive.

3 ways to use stress to your advantage

  • Remember it’s a win/learn scenario: Remembering that unless death is a real possibility, then every scenario we find ourselves in is an opportunity to succeed or learn. No matter the result of a situation, as long as you have learned something through it, then it is never a failure (loss). This is not to say we enjoy not getting things right or losing, but the fact that they are inevitable in life. This is much like how in physical exercise we may try to lift a new personal best heavy weight or run a new fastest time. We need to make friends with these losses and utilise them positively. Fear of failure is far more limiting than failure itself.
  • Concentrate on performing in the now: bring your concentration to the here and now. Ask yourself “what are the critical tasks I need to perform to get this done?” List them in order, starting with what you can start immediately to what needs to happen last. This will bring your focus to what you can control and in turn empower you, rather than disempower (focusing on potential outcomes or opinion of others)
  • Remind yourself to recalibrate your definition of stress: “Feeling stress is not me feeling overwhelmed, it is me pushing my limits to grow”.

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