You have never felt more powerful than you do in this moment. You are conscious of your muscles warming up as blood flows into them preparing to handle whatever is about to happen next. You feel the familiar tightening in your chest and neck. The tingle of sweat beginning to form on your skin. Your focus sharpens. You feel awake and alive.
What is this amazing feeling? The answer may surprise you: stress.
For those of you that have somehow avoided feeling stress this far into your life, allow me to define it for you. (Congrats, by the way, but you should probably call your neurologist now to get that looked at.)
The clinical definition of stress is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” Yikes. Sounds pretty intense, doesn’t it?
When most of us think of stress it immediately conjures to our mind’s eye some of the most painful and unpleasant experiences of our lives. That 4 hour exam that would make or break your college career; your father yelling at you; being told you have a life-altering medical condition; staring down a rather sharply dressed man at that one job interview. In fact, I’ll bet you started to feel a little stressed right now just thinking about it.
Now, as we define this I do want to clarify something up front. There is a difference between the kind of stress one might experience, say, in the jungles of Vietnam or through Asperger’s sensory issues vs. the everyday kind of stress one experiences in the waiting room of a job interview.
The difference is this: with the first kind, the kind that has a tendency to cause Defense Mode (and in the case of the soldier, PTSD), it’s something that is happening to you and that you are powerless to stop or control. The second kind, the kind we’re talking about in this article, usually has more in common with anxiety. It’s based largely in your perception of the stressful event, and you usually have at least some choices. (i.e. You are choosing to be in that job interview. You’re not trapped there and unable to escape.) In fact, in these sorts of situations there is one choice in particular that can completely negate the negative effects of that stressful experience. More on that in a minute.
The Secret of Stress
Today I would like to offer a different perspective on stress. There might be more to stress than you realize. In fact, some of your previously held notions about it might be dead wrong.
In 2012 there was a study done at the University of Wisconsin that spanned 8 years and tracked 30,000 adults. Basically, here’s what happened. They surveyed all those people with two questions in mind:
1.) How much stress have you experienced in the last year?
2.) In general, do you believe that stress is harmful to your health?
Then they just kept track of who died. So we’ve all heard stress is bad for you, right? Doctors, therapists, and the media have been telling us for years that stress causes everything from fatigue and high blood pressure to heart disease, diabetes, and death. So you’d think that those with really high levels of stress would be dropping like flies, right?
Well, kind of. That was indeed what the study found, but with one exception. If you did NOT believe that stress was harmful to your health than you were actually in the lowest risk category. Here’s the bottom line: Those with high-stress that believed stress is a good thing had lower death rates than the group that had low-stress that believed stress is bad for you.
So what does this mean for you? It means that your perception is an incredibly powerful tool. It means that you are no longer a victim of stress, and instead, you are its master. Stress is your superpower! If you choose to believe that stress is not bad for you, but rather is just your body kicking into high gear so it can rise to the challenge at hand then you may start to notice that all those adverse side effects you’ve been experiencing from stress just start to evaporate.
So dear reader, now that you’re aware of this you have a choice to make. I pray that you will choose to shift your perception. Choose to see stress for what it is. Choose to see yourself as the powerful, intelligent, and highly capable individual that you are, and ultimately experience a brighter, less draining, and more empowering reality.
P.S. Here's a link to the study if you want to go check it out personally.
Also, here’s Kelly McGonigal’s viral TED talk about stress perception. I highly recommend you watch it:
Her book “The Upside of Stress” is fantastic as well.
For more help managing stress, we highly recommend you read our “Be With It” and “What Is Defense Mode” articles.