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An Unlikely “Friend with Benefits”

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Kandi Wiens

When I was a kid, I used to look forward to making my holiday wishlist (a new doll house, a Hello Kitty™ backpack, a pair of new designer jeans, and always, always money!). Lately though, and like many of the people I work with today, I’m finding that my wishlist is focused on wanting my stress to go away. And by away, I mean far, far away!

But as the busy holiday season approaches—that magical time of year when joyful anticipation can give way to overwhelming stress—I decided to check myself on my assumptions about stress. 

Several years ago, while conducting research for my dissertation, I discovered that stress isn’t always a bad thing. If we stay within the sweet spot of stress—a place where we feel challenged and energized but not overwhelmed or ineffective—it can lead to greater focus and better performance. Then more recently, when I was doing research for my forthcoming book, Burnout Immunity, psychologist and author Kelly McGonigal introduced me to the concept of making stress your friend.  

Why would we want to do such a thing? Because stress, approached with the right mindset, offers advantages and insights we can’t access any other way. Here are some unexpected benefits of stress that may surprise you—and some tips for befriending stress to help you get through the holiday chaos, at work and at home. 

  1. Flip your script (rather than your lid!). The next time your stress starts to escalate, don’t try to suppress it or avoid it, which backfires by reinforcing your stress and draining your energy. Instead, acknowledge and accept that you’re going through a challenging time, but remind yourself it’s not impossible and you know you’ll prevail. This is what’s known as the challenge response to stress, where you view your stressors as challenges that you can learn from vs. threats you need to run from. With this mindset shift, you feel focused and excited rather than fearful and overwhelmed. The challenge response, says McGonigal, “gives us the motivation to approach a challenge head-on, and the mental and physical resources to succeed.” This is what you want when you have to give a presentation, take an exam, get through the end-of-year crunch time—or host your maddening, beloved family for the holidays. Still have doubts? Try the next tip.
  2. Use an optimistic acceptance mantra. Something as simple as “I’ve handled stress before, I’ll handle it again” shifts your attitude from pessimistic to optimistic, and reminds you of your competence and skill. Have fun finding a mantra that fits your personality! “I’m overwhelmed right now, but that’s okay” or “I’ve experienced stress before and I always get through it” are great examples. Or try my personal favorite: “Things are tough but this ain’t my first rodeo. Let’s go kick some ass.”
  3. Treat your stress like data. Sometimes the source of your stress is obvious, but if you’re overwhelmed and on edge and you’re not sure why, practice some self-awareness to tune in and listen—what is your stress trying to tell you? Every emotional and mental state has a message. Perhaps your stress is signaling that your boundaries aren’t being honored, or you need to carve out some alone time, or you’re taking on too much and need more help from others.
  4. Recognize when stress signals a win. McGonigal points out that because stress is unpleasant while we’re in the midst of it, we can lose sight of the fact that sometimes, our stress escalates because we’re getting close to something we want. Maybe your stress is rising because you’re up for a promotion, contemplating a new job, or you got picked for a challenging new task. These are all wins, so celebrate them!
  5. Connect with others. Drawing close to those we trust releases the “feel good” neurotransmitters serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine, which soothe stress, facilitate bonding, and give us a sense of pleasure and happiness. There’s also evidence that helping others activates the same stress-busting response. Now you have additional motivation to help your partner untangle that big ball of holiday lights: their stress will be reduced and yours will, too.
  6. Treat this as a unique learning opportunity. People with what’s known as a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset believe that stressful experiences present them with opportunities to learn, expand, and evolve. So this time, examine what led up to your stress, and what you need (I mean REALLY need) to get back into your sweet spot of stress. Can those stressors be avoided or mitigated? What conditions need to be in place for you to remain at a “just enough” point of stress?
  7. Map your stress to your values. Similarly, stress sometimes rises because an event or experience touches upon our core values. If there’s something that always gets you riled up and spikes your stress, see if it’s because it’s something you care deeply about. If so, use that stress as a deep well of energy and productivity. Stress can actually reveal your core values, and when your work springs from those values, it can keep you focused, energized, and motivated.

Toxic stress aside, it’s not that stress in itself is either good or bad. The difference lies in how you view stress. Believe it or not, it comes down to this: If you believe stress is harmful, it will be. If you believe stress is helpful, it will be.  

And that, my friends, is why I’m choosing to make stress my friend with benefits!

How about you? What benefits do you experience when you view stressors as challenges that you can learn from? In what ways does stress enhance your life? Send me a note. I’d love to hear from you!

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