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Five Helpful Ways To Reframe Stress

In my Stress Resilience Blueprint I describe how approaching stress management with the right mindset is key to success.

Reframing is the art of shifting mindset, or changing the way you view the problem to be solved, and / or goal to be achieved, in a way that opens up new possibilities, new ways forward. For example you can see the issues from a broader perspective, or just a different perspective.

In this article I want to present some reframes of stress, or different ways to view stress, that are helpful in the sense that they can reduce the negative impact of stress.

First a quick definition of stress: it's the experience of being challenged out of your comfort zone, so that your ability to cope is in some doubt. Actually there are two parts to stress: the stressor (or trigger) and the stress response, which is in the first place a bodily response, aimed at mobilising energy to help you cope better, but often experienced as anxiety.

The first two reframes actually reframe the stress response.

1. Stress is more excitement and less anxiety

I've said that the stress response is physical, or at least has a prominent physical component, which is reasonably well understood physiologically. Hormones like adrenalin are released, and the sympathetic nervous system activates to mobilise energy.

But adrenalin is also released when we feel excited – for example a roller coaster ride produces an “adrenalin rush”. Actually there's not that much difference between anxiety and excitement on the bodily level (there are however, some minor differences).

So what then is the difference?

It's one of mindset, or the attitude you take towards your own emotion. The example of the roller coaster ride is a good one because undoubtedly some people would experience is as simply terrifying, while others love the excitement. In anxiety, you don't want to experience the physical feeling you have (pounding heart, sweating, etc.). There is resistance to it. In excitement, you welcome it.

Resistance is likely to set up a vicious spiral, because resistance is itself a driver of the fight-or-flight response.

So if you can imagine what you're feeling is more like excitement and less like anxiety, you'll tend to break this cycle of resistance.

This is easier said than done, of course. It takes an attitude of willingness, that it's ok to experience some physical arousal. And not everyone has that. But it can be developed and trained, and the key is to start small, and gradually build the confidence that you can calm down again when your body is aroused. That's what I aim for with my Stress Resilient Mind programme.

2. The stress response helps me perform better

Researchers measured the stress response in a group of people about to take an exam. More specifically they measured the rise in the stress hormone cortisol. They wanted to see what effect the size of the stress response had on exam performance. It's interesting to ask yourself what you'd expect: does a bigger stress response lead to a better or worse outcome? You might be surprised to learn that it's better: those people showing a larger rise in cortisol did better in the exam.

But it's not that surprising when you remember the stress response evolved to help you cope better. It really does help you cope better, and perform better, as long as you can see it that way. If you see stress as harmful it's likely to be self-fulfilling (I say more about this in another article on stress mindset).

3. Stress is what makes life meaningful

One stress coping strategy is avoidance. On a level it can work. If you don't like exams, don't sign up for any courses. If you get social anxiety, don't go to any parties. If you don't like flying, don't go abroad. But the result is that your life ends up pretty empty.

What does it mean to live a meaningful life? You attempt to live out your values: you somehow put into practice the things that are most important. For example, you may value having loving and caring relationships, but to form them in the first place means meeting people, and that might be stressful.

I'm reminded of Dr Kelly McGonigal's definition of stress: what happens when something important is at stake.

4. Stress is an opportunity to grow

This reframe is related to the last. Maslow put self-actualization right at the top of his hierarchy of needs. It means fulfilling our potential, becoming the best person we can be. Growth is just another word for this process of fulfilling your potential. But how could you do that without challenge? Without pushing yourself at least to the edge of your comfort zone?

This place where challenge pushes you is also where flow states happen.

5. Failures are mistakes on the path of learning

If you're going to genuinely challenge yourself, you inevitably won't succeed every time. How many times did you fall over when you were learning to walk?

This relates to the concept of growth mindset, which I described in an earlier article. Suppose you get a poor grade on a course assignment. Do you take it as a sign you just can't cut it, or do you think in terms of how you can do better next time (through commitment and application)? With a growth mindset, failure is never absolute but just an inevitable step on a path of learning and development.

Conclusion

I hope these reframes can help you see stress in a better light, and thus help you to let go of resistance and be more accepting. I'm not saying that's easy. Inevitably you still need some willingness to experience discomfort, or uncertainty, or lack of control.

The key is having confidence that you can recover, that you won't spiral out of control. And that confidence can only come from experience – that's why I emphasise starting small, successfully coping with minor stressors and gradually building your skill level and hence confidence.

That suggests one more reframe of stress which I'll leave you with: stress and difficult emotions won't last forever. Sooner or later you'll start to feel better.

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