With all the media and medical attention on stress and its negative health impacts, it is easy to reach the conclusion that stress is irredeemably bad—something to be avoided as much as possible.
We have a different perspective. We believe that pursuing a “stress-free” life often causes more stress down the line—problems compound, and by failing to face our most intense challenges we never overcome them. Think about a time when you experienced substantial personal or professional growth, or a time when you performed at your highest level, such as finishing a race, building a business, or raising a child. What was it that motivated and fueled you to grow, learn, and improve during these times? We are willing to bet that those times invariably involved some stress or struggle.
Stress has many wonderful attributes. It reminds us that we care; it connects us directly with the most challenging and important aspects of our lives. We aren’t suggesting that sustained stress does not take a toll, only that it can bring unexpected benefits, too, in the form of personal growth. Combining our years of experience conducting leadership seminars and teaching meditation and martial arts (Tom) and exploring empirical research in the area of psychology (Alia) we have found that individuals who adopt a “stress is enhancing” mindset in their lives show greater work performance and fewer negative health symptoms than those who adopt a “stress-is-debilitating” lens. Drawing on our work and research with executives, students, Navy SEALs and professional athletes, we have devised a three-step approach to responding to pressure that we believe can help you harness the creative power of stress while minimizing its deleterious effects.
Step One: See It
The first step to transforming your response to stress is to “see” your stress. Rather than denying it, or dwelling upon it, we recommend simply naming or labeling the stress you are facing. For example, you might simply say to yourself: “I’m stressed about my son failing school.” Or “I’m stressed about our year-end numbers.” Or “I’m stressed about my husband’s recent health diagnosis.”
Neuroscience research by Matt Lieberman shows how just acknowledging your stress can move reactivity in your brain from the automatic and reactive centers to the more conscious and deliberate ones. In one study, participants in a brain scan were shown negative emotional images. When asked to label the emotion the images invoked, neural activity moved from the amygdala region (the seat of emotion) to the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain in which we do our conscious and deliberate thinking. In other words, purposefully acknowledging stress lets you pause your visceral reaction, allowing you to choose a more enhancing response.
Another reason to acknowledge and “see” your stress is that evading it is counterproductive anyway. Our research with Peter Salovey and Shawn Achor has shown that individuals who view stress as debilitating tend to either over or under react to stress whereas those with a “stress is enhancing” mindset have a more moderate cortisol response to stress and are more willing to seek out and be open to feedback during stress, which can help them learn and grow for the longer-term.
Mindfulness and other centering practices can help you acknowledge and transform how you are responding to duress. Each person reacts differently. Do you have a racing heart? Clenched muscles? Or are you in the minority who feel a sudden urge to fall asleep? What are your psychological reactions? To judge? Blame others (or yourself)? How about your behavioral reactions: Do you check out of the conversation all together? Rush to the refrigerator? Noticing these reactions releases us from their grip and helps shift our focus to pursuing more productive responses.
Step Two: Own It
The key to “owning” your stress is to recognize that we tend to stress more, and more intensely, about things that matter to us. Stress shows us that we care; that the stakes matter. Owning this realization unleashes positive motivation—because deep down we know that things that are important shouldn’t always come easy. A metaphor we often use to describe this state is “It’s just a cold, dark night on the side of Everest.” If you were climbing Everest, you could imagine that there might be some cold, dark nights on your journey up. But what did you expect—that climbing Everest would be a walk in the park? Do you really expect that raising a child, running a business, living a life of impact would be easy? Owning your stress won’t necessary make those cold, dark nights go away but they will likely be a bit more tolerable as you discover a sense of motivation and meaning.
“In Navy SEAL training,” former SEAL Commander Curt Cronin recently told us, “the leadership cadre designs situations that are exponentially more stressful, chaotic, and dynamic than any combat operation so that the teams learn to center [themselves] in the most arduous circumstances. When the stress of the training seems unbearable, we can own it, knowing that ultimately it is what we have chosen to do—to be a member of a team that can succeed in any mission.”
Step Three: Use It
Contrary to what you might think, the body’s stress response was not designed to kill us. In fact, the evolutionary goal of the stress response was to help boost the body and mind into enhanced functioning, to help us grow and meet the demands we face. When the body encounters stress, it pumps hormones such as adrenaline and dopamine which fuel the brain and body with blood and oxygen, a response which propels the individual into a state of increased energy, heightened alertness, and narrowed focus. Although the stress response can sometimes be detrimental, in many cases, stress hormones actually induce growth and release chemicals into the body that rebuild cells, synthesize proteins and enhance immunity, leaving the body even stronger and healthier than it was before. Researchers call this effect physiological thriving, and any athlete knows its rewards.
The issue, then, is not in the stress response itself but in how we channel or employ this response. Simply reframing your response to stress as something that is beneficial can be helpful. Researcher Jeremy Jamieson demonstrated that students asked to reframe pre-test anxiety as beneficial perform better on the exams. Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks has shown how reframing anxiety as excitement can improve performance on tasks such as negotiating and giving an important speech.
Sometimes, however, it is not so clear how best to use stress, especially with longer-term or more complicated situations. Consider an ongoing conflict with a spouse or a boss, a complex health condition or even the recent passing of a loved one. The key in these cases is to simply be open to the opportunities and learning inherent in the stress. Experiencing these challenges as an inherent part of our life-cycle—no one goes through life untouched by grief or heartbreak—can facilitate the acquisition of mental toughness, deeper social bonds, heightened awareness, new perspectives, a sense of mastery, greater appreciation for life, a sense of meaning, and strengthened priorities. Indeed, some leadership scholars—most notably Abraham Zaleznik—have drawn upon William James’ concept of “twice-born” personalities to argue that great leaders share the common experience of working through traumatic episodes in their lives.
That’s something the SEAL community has learned firsthand in recent years as its combat missions have increased. Commander Cronin recently told us, “After multiple years of backto-back deployments, post-traumatic stress disorder continued to grow within the SEAL community. Learning about post-traumatic growth, leaning to ask ‘how could these experiences serve us?’ and being pushed to own the experiences that we had been through and use them to fuel our future, proved a powerful tool in helping our individuals, teams and organization thrive, not in spite of the stress but because of it.”
As society we largely fail to frame stress as potentially enhancing and often miss opportunities to learn from and grow from stressful moments. That does not mean that we advocate viewing all stressors as a positive thing; but we do advocate that you embrace your stress response as a powerful tool for helping you overcome the inevitable challenges in life that can—and will—arise.
by Alia Crum and Thomas Crum