Question for you: is stress good or bad?
Here’s the scientific answer: it depends.
For most of us, when we think about stress, we think about the feeling that it produces in us. In a word, we think about the byproduct of stress.
Because stress can create uncomfortable feelings, often we think stress is bad. Certainly it can be.
Stress is simply defined as a “state of mental strain because of a challenge or demanding circumstances” by Dr. Jud Brewer, psychiatrist and author of “Unwinding Anxiety.”
In this definition, notice how it doesn’t allude to what stress feels like. It’s simply a metal state of strain.
What makes stress good or bad is our belief around it. Do we think stress and the challenge or demands are helpful and good for us? Or do we think that the uncomfortableness is harmful?
Dr. Jud says that if we take a “stress is bad” mindset, it could lead us to experience anxiety, overthinking and worry. Clearly, anxiety, overthinking & worry are debilitating. It’s hard, if not impossible, to be your best self, perform at your peak and then achieve your potential when anxious or worried.
And this isn’t even the real problem. The real problem is that when we constantly experience these negative emotions & thoughts, we can succumb to the idea that it’s “just who I am.” Game. Set. Match. We’re done.
Here’s the great news, though. We can make stress our friend, not our foe.
The reality is this: It’s not stress itself that dictates how you perform; it’s how you think about stress.
Modupe Akinola is a researcher & professor at Columbia University making a career out of understanding stress.
She says that when we experience stress, we get stress related hormones. These chemicals lead to hyper focus, energy, and strength. We can leverage these states for incredible performance.
The key is not to stress less. The key is to stress better.
When we think that we should be under stress, we can get what Akinola & her research partners call “stress-related toughening.” We realize how the stress experience is helping us thrive.
Think back to a time when you were actually evaluated by a challenge. A time when you rose to the occasion. Maybe it was in business – a pitch, speaking in public, being interviewed for the dream job you landed. Could have been in sports – that extra gear to finish a race, etc.
Notice how you responded to the challenge that helped you thrive in the moment – was it your focus, resilience, energy? I’ll also bet there was joy present, even in the midst of challenge.
As you consider how you showed up for yourself in the past, realize that you can adopt a “stress is enhancing” mindset to welcome a new challenge. You know that you have the resources to thrive.
Believing that stress is enhancing keeps you from feeling “stressed out.” It also fends off the anxiety, overthinking, burnout, worry that can plague us.
Stress, then, becomes your friend.