Back To Work But Not Under The Gun: A Surprising Way To Deal With Stress

Jan 6 2014, 1:34pm CST | by

Back To Work But Not Under The Gun: A Surprising Way To Deal With Stress
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

Now that we’re back to work after the holidays, our stress is ratcheting up into the stratosphere – and everybody knows that stress is terrible for your health, right?


In this fascinating TED talk, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal shares some truly ground-breaking research.  It turns out that stress isn’t the silent killer we’ve all thought – the problem is our beliefs about stress. In this study of 30,000 adults, conducted in the US over a period of eight years, participants were asked, “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” and “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?”

The results?  People who experienced a lot of stress had a 43% higher risk of dying – but only if they also believed that stress was harmful to them. Those who had a lot of stress, but didn’t see it as harmful, had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study - including those who had very little stress.

McGonigal goes on to give some very practical advice on how to change your self-talk about stress, so that you can become one of those fortunate people for whom stress is not a problem. Here’s the core of what she recommends:

Instead of thinking of your body’s stress reactions – pounding heart, faster breathing, tight stomach – as negative or harmful, something to be overcome, think of them as signs that your body is energized, preparing you for the challenge ahead.

Here’s a simple example, one that many of us experience at work.  Imagine that you have to give a presentation about a project you’ve been working on – and the audience is your boss, your boss’ peers, and their boss. And it’s just you.  You’re standing outside the meeting room, going over your notes one last time, hoping your slides will work on the computer they’ve got set up.  Your hands are clammy, you can hardly catch your breath, and your heart is pounding so hard you can feel it in your ears.  You say to yourself, “Oh my god, I’m so nervous – I hate feeling like this.  This is terrible. I’ve gotta get a grip on myself. They’ll all see my hands shaking…I’ll probably forget everything I know….” At this point, you’re well into the negative cycle of ‘stress about stress.’ Not only are you predicting your own failure through this kind of self-talk, the research McGonigal cites shows that this kind of negative thinking about stress actually creates additional stress reactions.  For instance, when you think of stress as harmful, not only does your heart rate increase even more, your blood vessels constrict, as well – a combination that’s associated with cardiovascular disease.

Let’s rewind the tape.  Same scene: solo presentation to the senior team; fast breathing, pounding heart, clammy hands.  But what you say to yourself instead is, “Oh my god, I’m really pumped about this presentation.  My body is preparing like it would for a race.  All I have to do is channel all this energy into confidence and enthusiasm….”

I know this works. I’ve spoken with dozens of people over the years who are unusually skilled at dealing with high stress situations – from powerful CEOs to Olympic athletes to professional musicians – and they’ve all shared with me some version of this approach: they harness their stress and make it work for them by believing that it’s the body’s natural way of preparing them to succeed.

McGonigal shares one other very important finding in her TED talk. In another stress study, participants were asked both how much stress they had experienced in the past year and how much time they had spent helping others.  It turns out that caring for others also reduces the negative effects of stress –those in the study who spent time helping others had zero stress-related increase in mortality, regardless of their level of stress. When you choose to connect with others when you’re under stress, it releases oxytocin, a stress hormone that actually builds heart health, relaxing your blood vessels and repairing heart tissue.

Given all this, here’s a quick cheat sheet for making stress your friend.  Next time you’re experiencing the physical symptoms of stress:

- Stop fighting it physically. Your breathing is faster? Don’t try to get it back to ‘normal’ – breath even deeper.  The extra oxygen will help you think.  Your muscles tighten up?  Don’t tighten against them, making it worse – let the added tension straighten your spine and make you feel strong and tall.

- Welcome it mentally.  Create a simple, supportive, believable self-talk sentence about your stress reactions.  For example: What I’m feeling is my body’s way of preparing me to meet this challenge. When you find yourself thinking negative or anxious things about your stress reactions, substitute this more helpful and accurate self-talk.

- Connect with others. When you’re feeling stressed, open up about it to someone you trust.  Or – even more beneficial – look for ways to help or support others, especially when you’re most stressed. For instance, in the presentation situation above, focus on how the project you’re working on will help the company or (if you and your boss have a good relationship) how it will support his or her success.

Harnessing your stress to work for you just might be the most helpful (and most keepable) resolution you can make to improve your life this year.


Check out Erika Andersen’s latest book, Leading So People Will Followand discover how to be a followable leader. Booklist called it “a book to read more than once and to consult many times.”

Want to know what Erika and her colleagues at Proteus do? Find out here.

To acknowledge Erika’s contribution as a business thinker, vote for her here as a Top5 Speaker in management and business.  Thank you!

Source: Forbes Business


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