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How You Think About Stress Matters

by Beth on September 23rd, 2015

There is a lot of research showing how bad stress can be for our health. And it can be! But it doesn’t have to be.

In her book, The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal explains that there are different responses to stress and they aren’t all bad. A threat response, better known as a fight-or-flight response, prepares you for self-defense, constricting your blood vessels, ramping up inflammation, and getting immune cells ready to help you heal. This response is useful in a dangerous situation, but on a sustained basis it can hurt your cardiovascular health.

Another type of response to stress is the challenge response. In this case your body responds like it does to physical exercise, maximizing blood flow to give you more energy. The challenge response helps you perform better, increasing your confidence and concentration. Hormones are released that improve learning and memory, enhance empathy and intuition, and protect your heart.

If you view a situation as less threatening, you are more likely to have a challenge response than a threat response. So the way you think about stress can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Choosing to view stress as something positive that can help you to perform better activates a challenge response, thus making your stress beneficial. Trying to avoid stress because you believe it is bad causes you to have a threat response, which, in most cases, isn’t helpful.

So try not to think of stress as something to be avoided. Think of it as a necessary part of a meaningful life. Stress occurs when you are concerned about something that really matters to you. The things in life that give you meaning also cause stress.

The belief that stress is bad makes stress harmful. Change your view of stress to see how it can help you be smarter, stronger, and more successful and it will do just that. So repeat after me: Stress isn’t harmful, stress is helpful! OK, one more time!

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