Stress can be your friend? Seriously? What about the common belief that too much stress can cause you to get sick and even die? It turns out that after a decade of research, it’s not the amount or type of stress that determines its impact, it’s our mindset about the stress that matters the most. Two researchers, Kari Leibowitz and Alia Crum from Stanford University found that in a study of 30,000 Americans, those who had the highest levels of stress were 43% more likely to die only if they believed that stress was bad for their health. Those who also experienced high stress but didn’t see it is harmful were the least likely to die compared with any other group in the study – including people who experienced very little stress.
Changing your stress mindset about the coronavirus may not happen instantly, but it is possible to shift your reaction to stress. This technique has worked with Navy SEALS, college students, and business leaders and it can work for you!
Acknowledging and labeling your stress consciously moves neural activity from the amygdala – the center of emotion and fear – to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive control and planning. When you take a moment to acknowledge our stress, it moves you from operating from a fearful, reactive place to a place where you can be thoughtful and deliberate. This step helps you stop using the massive mental energy of trying to suppress anxious thoughts. It also helps you understand what’s at the heart of your personal stress. Are you most worried about getting sick, a loved one getting sick, balancing family with working from home, or losing your job? What emotions are you feeling: frustration, sadness, anger? And what do you feel in your body: tightness in your neck and shoulders, low back pain, headaches, or trouble sleeping?
The next step is to welcome, or “own”, your stress. You only stress about things we value. If you deny or avoid stress, you may be disconnecting from the things you value the most. To connect with the values and goals underlying your stress, complete this sentence about what you specifically identified as a stressor in Step 1: “I’m stressed about ___________ because I deeply care about____________”.
Ask yourself: Are your responses in alignment with the values behind your stress? If you’re worried about the impact of the coronavirus on your community, is constant watching of the news the best way to support your family and your own health? You are not powerless over your actions. Think about how you might change your response to stress. Maybe taking a quick 10-minute walk would be better for you. The trick is to channel your coronavirus stress as energy to make the most of this time. Trying to use your stress during this scary time might sound really hard. But consider the alternative. Failing to embrace our stress only creates more stress.
After this is over, we will be asking ourselves how we responded to this crisis. Did we live in accord with our values? Make the most of this opportunity to learn and grow, to connect with loved ones, and to develop good skills for dealing with future crises.
There is an open-access tool kit, series of online videos at Sparqtools.org/rethinkingstress to help you start practicing these steps at home, now.
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