You can’t go more than five minutes these days without hearing about stress: stress tests, stress management, how everyone’s eventual cause of death will probably be — you guessed it — stress. We humblebrag about stress, we complain about it, we take yoga classes and meditate to get rid of it. We’re obsessed.
But I’m about to propose something that might sound crazy: You don’t need to get rid of stress to live a happy, fulfilling life.
Many self-help models suggest that a satisfying life can only be found when you get rid of negative thoughts and feelings. But in my work on “emotional agility,” I’ve found that attempting to get rid of stress can actually make you more stressed. It’s better to acknowledge the power of emotion and ride the waves, so to speak, coming out stronger on the other side so you can make decisions that aren’t stress-based.
Think of your stress as a radio station you want to turn off. You wouldn’t try to drown out the bad station by playing other music on top of it, would you? Of course not. You’d find the dial button and move to another channel, not eliminating the first station but choosing the second station instead. Similarly, trying to cover up stress with positive thoughts or behaviors usually does nothing to drown out the stress. And when we fail to eliminate it, we feel more anxious. We get stuck in a never-ending stress cycle.
In the larger scheme of things, stress is incredibly useful. It’s an important evolutionary response to danger, an automatic tool that takes over in the event of an emergency. At the sight of something dangerous (or worrisome), your stress responses activate, helping you run faster, jump higher, see better, and think quicker. Stress is the body’s best weapon; it’s what kept us alive for years, taking us from prey to predator. We can’t quash our stress response no matter how hard we try — we need it.
But the question, then, is how we can use stress for good. If we can’t get rid of it, what should we do with it? Here are some of my favorite strategies.
Pick a lens. Research from Health Psychology tells us that the way we think about our bodily stress responses can improve physical health. In the study sample, people who construed their symptoms of stress in positive or benign ways exhibited better health and longevity than anyone else. So thinking of your stress as a built-in pump-up mechanism, one that prepares you for challenging situations, can help you move forward rather than get bogged down. When your heart starts beating fast and your palms get sweaty, thank your body: Now you can walk into the meeting or interaction feeling ready for anything. This strategy isn’t denial or “thinking positively”; it is engaging with our evolutionary reality.
Unhook. I often teach my clients about what it means to get hooked. In this case, it means moving from “I feel stressed” to “I am stressed.” When we identify strongly with an emotion, it can become our definition of self, a terrifying reality that we must face every day. But what we have to remember is that stress is a bodily response to a feeling about our view of the world. Stress is not always reality. So try rephrasing your anxiety in your head: “I’m stressed” becomes “I’m in a situation that requires me to make a big presentation, so I am having the feeling that I am stressed and my body is responding accordingly.” Once you step back, even just a bit, you’ll gain the perspective needed to move forward.
Cultivate curiosity. Why are you stressed? To unhook, we have to understand where our stress comes from. We can’t do that unless we curiously interrogate the feeling, considering the reasons behind our stress, the people who might be causing it, and the qualities of the stress experience. How do you behave when you’re stressed? What do you tell yourself when you’re feeling anxious? Recognize the patterns in your responses.
Contrary to popular belief, “stress relief” may not be as easy as we think it should be. So rather than fighting our natural responses to the world, try wrapping your arms around the feeling and integrating it into your response to the world. Stress prepares you for battle, pumping you up, increasing levels of success, and keeping you alive.
Susan David is a founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching and is on faculty at Harvard. She is author of Emotional Agility (Avery, 2016) based on the concept named by HBR as a Management Idea of the Year. An in-demand speaker and advisor, David has worked with the senior leadership of hundreds of major organizations, including the United Nations, Ernst & Young, and the World Economic Forum. For more information, go to www.susandavid.com or @SusanDavid_PhD.