How to Get Good at Being Stressed Out

Take a second to think back to a time in your life when you experienced significant personal growth -  a watershed moment that lead to positive change and a better understanding of life.

When you capture this moment, experience or season, I then want you to consider this: Would you also consider this time in your life as stressful?

It's likely that the answer is yes.

Very rarely do we ever grow in times of ease.

We don't walk away with tons of wisdom after we've spent six days laying on the beach getting kissed by the Costa Rican sun.

But when you pour your heart into a business for six years and it fails, there's some lessons to be learned inside that pain. You become more savvy in your next venture.

How about when you get that 30 day notice to quit on your door, and you also just got laid off eight days ago?  When you navigate through that, you prove to yourself you got what it takes to get thorough hard times.

Or what about the impact of losing a friend or loved one has on you? Surely grief is in the equation, but it also makes you sympathetic towards those who have experienced or will experience a similar situation.

And here in lies the paradox of stress: Even though none of us want it and would prefer to have less stress, it's often the most difficult times that provide the richest opportunities for growth.

In fact, past difficult times are what we rely on to get us through what we're currently wrestling with in the present moment.

Studies reveal that when people are asked how they are coping with the biggest sources of stress in their lives, 82% of them say that they are drawing on strength development from past stressful experiences.

If you'll notice, everything I described about stress had a negative posture. It assumed, that all stress is uniformly harmful even if there is some positive benefits to be gained from the experience.

And this stance on stress has permeated throughout our culture. It feels like we've turned everything into a stressful task, project or responsibility.

Going to the grocery store, meeting deadlines at work, making it to the gym on-time, shuttling the kids to soccer practice, checking in to the Google hang-out, submitting a proposal, giving a speech at a conference, visiting mom.

These are normative aspects of life, but we've turned them into stressful events.

When everything feels like stress, burnout and disconnection is around the corner.

But how did we get here? How come it feels like we're a bunch of monkeys with machine guns stressed out up to our eyeballs?

Before we go on, it's important that this will be in no way a claim to escape from stress. That's impossible. Instead, you'll read about some ideas on how you can alter your disposition towards stress though mindset training and understanding that there is more than one response to stress.

In other words, since stress is going to be a part of our lives, our aim should be to get good at living with it rather than trying to run from it.


Think about what you think about when you're stressed

What is your default perception of stress?

Your baseline mindset towards stress is the lens you look through during difficult, challenging or painful times.

Do you believe stress is uniformly harmful? Or do you think that stress can be enhancing?

The answer to that question carries more weight than you think. Here's why:

The ratio of DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) to cortisol is called the growth index of a stress response. The higher the growth index - meaning more DHEA - helps people thrive under stress instead of being buried by it. A greater growth index is associated with more focus, less overwhelm and heightened problem solving skills. The growth index also has a large impact on resilience - the ability to bounce back from setbacks.

The fascinating part is that this ratio is largely determined on how you think about stress.

If you have a harmful mindset, it's likely you:

  • Believe all stress debilitates performance
  • Believe that all stress depletes progress and drains your energy
  • Believe that all stress should be eliminated and/or avoided

If you have a enhancing mindset towards stress, it's likely you:

  • Believe stress enhances your performance
  • Believe that stress is needed to improve your health
  • Believe that stress facilities learning
  • Believe that some effects of stress yield positive results

Your mindset towards stress predetermines how you handle difficult times. If you have adopted a universal stance that all stress is harmful, then everything that presents tension - whether it's sitting in traffic or working on a passion project - induces a negative response.

However, if your mindset towards stress acknowledges that there are multiple responses to stress and not only a negative one, you can use stress to your advantage and make it work for you instead of against you.


There is more than one response to stress

Coach wraps up his pre-game talk, throws the dry erase marker down to the ground and says, "Let's bring it in."

We all huddle in and join hands, and one of the guys says, "Play hard on three."


In that moment, that feeling in my stomach consumes my existence. I'm stressed. I'm anxious.

But, I use it for good. The feeling wasn't dreadful.

That stress put me in a state of high performance. The pre-game stress got me "hyped."

Fast forward about a decade or so, and I realized that my experience with stress has changed. Somewhere along the journey, all of my stress was burdensome. Instead of feeling hyped, I felt exhausted, burdened, overwhelmed and fearful.

What happened? In both cases, I was stressed. On the court the stress was beneficial, but in so-called adult life, the stress felt crippling.

The answer lies in the fact that there is more than one response to stress. But, as we grow up we tend to adopt only one of them as our default response towards all stress.

Analyzing what type of response is appropriate in difficult times is the key to making stress work for you, and not against you. Understanding the different stress responses also allow you to shift your mindset from thinking that all stress is harmful to all stressors induce a different response.


Threat response

This is the fight or flight response that we humans come pre-programmed with. When iPhones weren't around and saber-tooth tigers roamed freely, this response was critical.

The threat response literally saved a life when a physical danger was present.

Today, however, we don't face these types of threats nearly as often. And it's quite possible to argue that most of us will never face this type of danger.

To be fair, there are some rare cases when someone will run away from a robber, escape from a burning building, or save a child trapped under some rubble.

Even though these types of situations are rare in modern life, it's the most common response to stress regardless if our lives are on the line or not.

In a life threatening situation, the threat response is needed.  Your sympathetic nervous system reacts quickly and your whole body mobilizes energy to induce you to act quickly. Your breathing deepens and your heart rate speeds. The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol surge to prepare you for the challenge ahead.

When a threat response is induced, it puts you into self-defense mode. Your body and brain are anticipating physical pain or harm. To minimize blood flow loss in case of an accident, fight or injury, your blood vessels constrict. Your body also mobilizes immune cells to prepare for restoration just in case some thing traumatic happens.

It's clear to see that a threat response is severe. It causes massive stress, and it the right context this response is beneficial. The problem is that this is the default response we assume when we sit in traffic or when we are working against a deadline at work. It's an inappropriate response for a situation that isn't life threatening.

Most of the time, our stress is not life threatening. But we've trained ourselves to induce a threat response anytime we get squeezed by life. This is how we get burned out and overwhelmed.


Performance response

The performance response is similar to the threat response in the fact that it prepares your body for action.

But the difference lies in how your body prepares you for that action. When a performance response is induced, your body doesn't expect harm and thus it maximizes blood flow throughout our body to deliver energy. Blood vessels don't restrict. Instead of a self-defense posture that you adopt during a threat response, you feel excited energized and ready to perform well during a performance response.

This is the kind of response I got right before my games in the locker room. The stress I felt induced a performance response prepping me to do my best on the court.

The performance response is something to remember especially in the workplace. In our work, the idea that it will end or be stress-free is not possible. There will always be things to get done. There will always be deadlines. There will always be the pressure to produce.

How you perceive these truths will largely impact what kind of stress response you induce. If you perceive the stress of work in a way that induces a threat response, burnout, overwhelm and a constant need to prove your worth will drive your experience.

On the other hand, if you perceive the stress of work in a way that induces a performance response, you'll be energized, engaged and enthused to do your best work.

For the majority of us, our work and the stress that accompanies it is not life threatening. Therefore, we can shift our mindset to see that the stress we encounter with our work is intended to challenge us to do better work, not stress us out.

When we lean this way, a performance response is induced which has an entirely different impact on the cardiovascular changes during stressful times.


Befriend response

This response is most evident with babies. Humans come hard wired to care for their offspring. This state is interestingly transferred when we respond to others in need as well.

When we choose to help others who are facing difficult times, it's driven from our need to connect with other humans.

The neurohormone that causes this emotion is oxytocin.

When you hug a loved one, look into your dogs eyes, or when you hold a baby, oxytocin is released. It makes you feel connected.

You not only become more loving or caring, but your conviction of the people or communities you care about is increased as well. You muster up the courage to stand up what for what you believe in.

When a friend passes away from a breast cancer, you rise up to increase awareness of your fellow tribe members.

When your employee gets chewed out by a customer for no good reason, you want to stand up for them and defend them.

When you become aware that kids are drinking dirty water from a well that is also used as a restroom, you channel the anger to help serve those kids.

The befriend response, which is driven by oxytocin, induces a response within you to protect and serve.

When you're made aware that something bad happens to somebody else or some other community, you experience stress. How you handle it impacts what you do next.

The befriend response influences you to channel the stress in a way that makes you feel more connected and fulfilling a natural desire to help and serve others.


Wrapping Up

I'm just like you. I don't crave more stress in my life. But, avoiding it or wishing that our lives were stress free isn't in the cards for us.

We've got to get good at living with stress.

To do that, shifting our minds to believing that stress can be used for good is the goal. Then, understanding that there are multiple stress responses we can choose to entertain the difficult times, allows us to navigate stress appropriately.

By adopting these to ideas - believing that stress can be used for good and choosing the appropriate stress response - we can become less fearful of stress, trust in our ability to manage difficult times and essentially use it to make us thrive at life.


Coming September 2016 

Hi, I’m Brian McFadden, teacher of the Ultra Wellness Program — the course that teaches business owners, independent workers, creative leaders how to get in the best shape of their life, for the rest of their life. If you're ready to upgrade your health, change your body and skyrocket your productivity, sign up for the presale list. By doing so, it'll give you the chance to register for the course before everyone else. Even better, you'll save hundreds of dollars on the cost of the program. Sign up by clicking here. 

I share life strategies on health, happiness, and simple living every Tuesday and Friday here on my blog. The easiest way to stay connected with me is to sign up for my no spam, gimmick-free newsletter.


End notes:

Thanks to Kelly McGonigal for helping prompt this piece. 

The Upside of Stress