3 Ways To Turn Stress Into Success

Image via Unsplash/Wil Stewart

Stress has always been the enemy. Industries and workplaces lose $300 billion each year due to stress-related causes. Absenteeism, apathy, lower productivity, and workplace accidents are just some of the work-related effects.

But what if stress was actually your friend?

It sounds absurd. But the brain’s release of cortisol, which causes stress, is a survival mechanism designed to help us. In our primitive hunter-gatherer state, cortisol provided a shot of adrenaline which heightened our awareness of impending dangers. However, that shot of ‘stress’ — meant to be a momentary alarm — has turned into perpetual overdrive in today’s world.

But there is a baby in the bathwater; the good elements of stress can be separated from the bad. Here are three ways to turn stress around from working against you, to working for you:

1. Start with foundational beliefs.

The idea that your beliefs can alter reality is an ancient one, and new research continues to support it. Kelly McGonigal’s influential Ted Talk explains that, while people who said they were “experiencing a lot of stress” had a 43 percent increased risk of dying, studies showed that was only among people who believed stress was harmful to their health. Those who believed it was a necessary and natural human response altered their brain’s behavior and regulation of cortisol.

2. Change your interpretation.

If perception is a different way to look at food, interpretation is a different way to digest that food. Changing our interpretation of stress means working with the symptoms that appear, rather than working against them.

Typical physiological responses to stress include: increased breathing and heart rate; sweating, and shaky hands. These responses generally heighten and exaggerate a person’s stress levels, but they can also heighten your performance. Jeremy Jamison, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, explains that our body’s reaction to social stress is the same response to physical danger; the key difference lies in the ability to reframe these responses.

Students who struggled with public speaking were taught to reinterpret their stress responses as a positive — that the body was getting excited and marshaling resources, pumping more blood to major muscle groups, and delivering more blood to the brain.

Interpreting stress in this way allows you to rise to the challenge, rather than crumble and fall under pressure. Studies showed the extent of positive thinking went beyond just the psychological, ranging into the physical — the blood vessels of those who reframed stress responses in the positive stayed relaxed rather than constricting.

3. Building community.

McGonigal explains that stress doesn’t only cause our brains to release cortisol, but also oxytocin, otherwise known as the “love hormone.” It is released when we hug someone, in intimate relationships, and during sex. Part of its release during stress is to nudge you to connect with people, since the survival mechanism reminds us there is strength in numbers. When we reach out and connect with others when under stress, whether to receive or give support, the oxytocin helps to regenerate heart cells and make us feel better. And of course, the better we feel, the more engaged and productive we become.

Stress facilitates human connection. As the saying goes, it’s not what you know but who you know. The next time you feel stressed, or encounter someone in stress, use that as a prompt to connect with another person. Give yourself the physical benefits of oxytocin, and also expand your social and professional network.