Imagine this situation:
Something’s gone wrong at work and you’re going to have to make a huge effort to get it to rights. There are likely to be consequences for this. You’re anticipating having to speak to a lot of people, possibly working late, in order to rectify the situation. and there’s no guarantee that’ll help in the end.
If you’re anything like me, even just thinking about that possibility gets your heart rate up. This is what most people call stress.
Let me be clear: stress sucks. In fact, most health and lifestyle gurus advocate minimizing stress as much as possible, and for good reason. It’s been linked to physical health complications, making relationships suffer, and putting a strain on your mental health as well.
But the truth is that when we don’t interact with stress at all, we’re missing out on strengthening a core skill: resilience.
Resilience is the ability to keep going when the chips are down, to continue to struggle when you’ve already failed, and when the odds are stacked against you.
“Enhanced adrenal functioning underpins this increased capacity to respond well to stress.” — Dr. Brock Bastian, Associate Professor in Psychology.
And the only way you get better at it is through experiencing stress.
Experiencing stress primes you to learn to cope with problems and difficulties, rather than just giving up, or throwing yourself to the floor and crying.
Which is sometimes what I feel like doing.
Managed effectively, stressful experiences can build resilience that will help you to deal with difficult situations in the future.
Even in an ideal world, I believe most of us would still seek out challenges, either to hone our skills, or find novelty, or even just for fun. In those cases, the way you can best prepare yourself to cope well with those challenges? Give yourself a sort of stress-vaccine.
By controlling the circumstances where you experience stress, you can train yourself to react in a constructive, positive way when you encounter unexpected difficulties in your life, as we all do.
Here are the best strategies for dealing with stress that build your ability to problem-solve.
1. Experience uncontrollable stress.
That already sounds terrifying — but hear me out.
Researchers used to believe that when exposed to uncontrollable stress — that is, a stressful experience with absolutely no chance of escape — it would mean that we’d be more likely to give up when we experienced a period of controllable stress, where there was an out.
In fact, the opposite was true. Scientists determined that when exposed to these adverse experiences, we’re physiologically strengthening the way our body both releases adrenaline to cope with the threat, and brings it back down to normal levels after the threat is over.
Examples include: really awful weather, going to parties where you don’t know many people, trying something you’ve never done before. It doesn't have to be horrible — it just has to be something outside of your sphere of influence. See what happens when bad or uncomfortable things happen to you that you can’t really control.
2. Find your good stress.
It’s important to caveat at not all stress is good, and some types of stress such as car accidents, loss of a close friend or relative, can cause trauma. As a result, it’s key to find something which is a challenge to you, rather than a threat.
Things that you view as challenging will stimulate your body to produce the appropriate amount of adrenaline, training you like an athlete to cope with the situation well, both now and in the future.
For example, a paper deadline is a great instance of good stress.
In university, the first time I was set a long paper with a close deadline, I was very panicky, and no doubt my body was showing the stress levels equivalent to a life-or-death situation.
But over time I came to view these paper assignments as challenges to my intellect, to my abilities, rather than threats to my grades or my future career and happiness. I grew better at not panicking and changing my perspective n it, and I performed better on it and future academic challenges as a result.
The trick to finding your good stress is to focus more on changing your mindset rather than going out searching for it. Chances are, you’ve got plenty of sources of stress. Start viewing them as challenges, not threats.
3. Focus on your gains, not your losses.
Going beyond your comfort zone for any reason is terrifying. Whether it’s going to a nude drawing class, or even just trying something you know you’re bad at, even in a controlled situation, being stressed can feel like you’re minutes away from life-threatening peril.
When we do something we haven’t done before, we open ourselves up to the possibility of brand new bad experiences.
But we also experience new good things.
Even when we stress ourselves and we fail, we haven’t lost. We’ve still gained the ability to cope with stress better than before, we’ve picked up some skills along the way, and, most importantly, we have the knowledge that we can do new things and not die.
Your cave-person brain will always try to convince you to be risk-averse.
Back then, saber-tooth tigers were always around the next bend. But today? It’s worth it to look for stress and find the positives in your experiences.
When you experience stress (as you definitely will, probably today) you might have a negative consequence. To use stress in the best and most effective way possible, you have to start realizing that good things occur as a result of stress as well as bad.
Coping with stress is one of the most important skills you can learn to cope with hardship and challenges in the future. Removing stress from your life altogether isn’t the answer, as we can’t remove challenges from our lives much as we want to. You can try to be as zen as you like, but eventually you’ll come across something that upsets your plans. That’s when you need to learn to cope rather than simply reduce.
The right kind of stress, viewed with the right mindset, helps us develop the best way for us to deal with scary or hard things.
When we’re stressed, whether we succeed or spectacularly fail, we’re building confidence in ourselves that next time the stressful event comes around, we’ll do better. It’s better to learn to deal well with the stress that exists in all our lives, than trying to avoid it altogether.