Harness the energy and the data that stress generates
In a previous blog, I introduced a definition of stress proposed by psychologist and Stanford University professor Kelly McGonigal – “Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake”. I went on to discuss the importance of knowing what we truly care about in order to filter out unnecessary stress. However, this ought not be an excuse to cut down on meaningful aspirations or parts of our life such as family, work or close friendships. Having a meaningful life involves taking a risk – the risk of being exposed to stressful situations. And that is why learning to harness stress is essential to having a meaningful and fulfilled life.
The data that stress generates
I’m a data geek. In fact, in a previous role I spearheaded the Data & Business Insights team at graze.com. So when I came across the concept of data in the context of stress, my eyes turned into bright red emoji hearts. During my moments of anxiety, I used to dread the burning sensation in my chest and my back. Rather than seeing these as messages that my stress response was sending me, I would get angry with myself for being unable to withstand the situation at hand. As you may guess, that anger and frustration served as adding logs to an already roaring fire.
In time, I learnt that I would be better off interpreting my thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and subconscious behaviours as pure data. This way I was able to step out. And with the mind of a curious explorer (imagining the detective emoji), I would start processing the messages that my stress response was generating. Interestingly, I came to learn that there was a great deal of science behind it. Turns out that as soon as we bring our stress response above the “subconscious line”, all of this data starts being processed in the rational part of our brain – our prefrontal cortex, as opposed to the amygdala – a core fear system in our body. In the short term, it can lead to more proactive coping. In the long term, it can build resilience as we cultivate our ability to respond to challenges in life more adaptively.
The energy that stress generates
Let’s take this a step further. One of the fundamental principles of martial arts is that of using our opponent’s force against themselves. Effectively, turning negative energy in our favour. Similarly, when it comes to stress, we have the ability to transform its harmful energy into a resource available to us. We can absorb this energy and not only avoid its damage, but use it to thrive into a greater and more powerful self.
Our stress response is an automated mechanism to help our body rise to many challenges. The typical physiological signs of stress – a quickening breath, heart pounding, muscles tightened – are designed to generate that much needed energy. We can either choose to perceive this energy as a resource, or as a “fire” that requires resources to be put out. What we choose will determine our brain's perceived balance of our resources relative to the demands placed on us by the stressful situation we're facing. If our brain deems there to be enough resources, we will likely feel "challenged" as opposed to "threatened". Think of a time when you felt challenged – how did that feel? Now think of a time when you felt threatened – how did that feel? It's different, right?
There's an ocean of difference between feeling challenged and threatened. In fact, these are two completely different stress responses. As Stanford University researcher Alia J. Crum explains in her work, a challenge response is typically associated with increased cardiac efficiency, positive emotions, hormonal responses related to thriving and growth, and increased cognitive performance. That's right – our heart has a stronger beat pumping out more blood similarly as it does during physical exercise, we feel energised and confident as opposed to fearful and self-doubting, we secrete a different cocktail of hormones which enable growth, a greater attention span and an ability to think sharply.
Of course, the danger which we experience is not always a real one. Often it is only perceived by our complex minds. Even when the danger is only in our mind, seeing our stress response as a resource can help us embrace a more proactive coping strategy. This strategy may involve an action or simply a change of attitude.
How to harness our stress response
So let’s put these two concepts together in a 3-step practice designed to help you harness stress in situations when something you care about is at stake. Familiarise yourself with it, perhaps even print it out and come back to it in a moment of stress.
Step 1: Acknowledge
Acknowledge the stress you’re experiencing. Allow yourself to notice how it affects your thinking, your emotions, your behaviour and your body. Be curious and interested in these “streams of data”.
Step 2: Appreciate
Welcome your stress response by recognising that it’s a result of something you care about being at stake. Can you connect the stress you’re feeling with one of your values, motivations or aspirations?
Step 3: Adjust
Take a deep breath. Try to set aside the things that are irrelevant to your goal and use your stress response as a source of energy. If you're performing under imminent time-pressure, try taking a breath to sense the energy available to you.
Try asking yourself:
- What would a hypothetical stress-resilient person do in this situation? Would they change the situation (“alter”) or change their response to it (“adapt”)?
- Are your reactions facilitating or hindering your goal? What changes can you make so that the stress you’re experiencing can be enhancing as opposed to debilitating?
- What are the opportunities which could arise as a result of experiencing this stress – the possibilities, learnings or insights?
Harnessing stress is a skill that each of us can surface from within and cultivate over time. And while to some it comes naturally, it doesn't to all of us. I had to learn and practise how to harness stress until it became second nature. And if I could do it, I have no doubt you can too. But why do it? Think for yourself – how could things be different in your life if you managed to use stress to your advantage?