The end of my first semester in graduate school was probably the most stressed out I have ever been. It was finals week, and I had a ton of writing assignments due within an 18 hour window. Did I work ahead and plan my time out accordingly? No! Of course not! My best friend and I watched Beaches (so we’d have an excuse to cry) then hit the library afterward, leaving us less than 24 hours to write a 15 page paper and a few 3-4 page ones. Our plan was to rely on Dr. Pepper and adrenaline to write all night. As you can imagine…it did not go well.
At 5 a.m., I found my way-over-caffeinated-beyond-stressed-out-in-desperate-need-of-sleep self in the bathtub trying to relax enough so I could finish those papers. I seriously thought I was having an aneurysm. It was terrible. Somehow, I got it all done by the deadline, but I was a wreck, completely convinced I wasn’t cut out for graduate school or being a psychologist. I even called the school district in my hometown to find out if I could become a teacher instead. Fortunately, they never called me back, and I got to recoup over the holiday break. That experience taught me some hard-won lessons, and I don’t think I’ve ever gotten near that level of stressed out again. Thank goodness because that really sucked.
Is Stress Bad?
After that little gem I just shared, you might expect me to answer with a resounding YES! And you might say the same thing. It seems that we’ve been taught to think of stress as a bad thing to be avoided, and that’s problematic for a few reasons. One, stress is unavoidable. Absolutely and completely unavoidable. Any demand for your time, attention, or energy is going to cause some measure of stress. So even if you withdraw from life completely – no work, no relationships, no nothing – you’re still going to get hungry, and that requires your time, attention, and energy to resolve. Viola, stress! Albeit, that would likely register as a very minor amount of stress (assuming you have ready access to food). Still, the idea that we can avoid stress is faulty because it just isn’t possible.
The notion that we should avoid stress because it is harmful or bad for us is also faulty, but it’s a little more complicated. Yes, stress can be quite harmful for us, when it is chronic and poorly managed. That caveat is an important one, so keep it in mind.
Unchecked, chronic stress can lead to all kinds of health issues and even premature death. It affects the quality of our minds, making them more negative and less effective problem-solvers. Stress can impact our moods and turn us into snappy unpleasant people to be around. All considered, chronic poorly managed stress has a negative impact on virtually every area of our lives and functioning.
But Stress Can Be Good for You
Here’s the interesting thing to consider…stress can actually be good for us under the right circumstances.
My little brother and Dr. April, my co-founder here at Peak Mind, have something in common. They both lift weights. Not like I do, taking a strength class here and there, working enough to be a little sore. They lift heavy. They intentionally put their muscles under a lot of stress to hold that heavy burden, causing tiny tears and microtraumas in the tissue…and that is absolutely necessary for building muscle mass and increasing strength. Our muscles must be taxed – they must be stressed – to get stronger.
It’s not just our muscles that benefit from being stressed, though. A growing body of research suggests that other stressful conditions such as cold and hunger (e.g., intermittent fasting) can have a positive impact on our bodies and brains as well, triggering biological responses that help optimize our DNA.
Other Benefits of Stress
Beyond the increases in strength and health that can come from taxing our bodies, stress can be good for us psychologically as well. Consider the hero from your favorite action or fantasy movie. Did they have an easy, stress-free life? Doubtful! The journey for most heroes includes adversity and challenge, which they learn from and overcome, and it often becomes the source of their strength or power. We are no different. By overcoming challenge (aka stressful situations), we can build mental toughness, resilience, and find wells of inner strength we did not know we had.
How to Handle Stress Better
Whether stress is good or bad for you depends on a few factors like how much stress you’re experiencing at any given point in time (stress compounds – it adds up), how much stress you can handle (your psychological strength and stress management skills), and your mindset (turns out, believing that stress can be good for you can make it so). You may or may not be able to control how much stress life throws at you at any given moment, but you can definitely do something about the last two factors. Rethinking your relationship with stress and taking intentional action to improve your ability to manage stress is critical. After all, stress is an inevitable part of life. It’s time to develop the tools, skills, and mindset necessary to prevent those freaking-out-in-the-bathtub stressed out moments.
In honor of this being Stress Awareness month, we are making our Stress Management mini-course available for the first time. This little powerhouse of a product will help you redefine your relationship with stress and learn to manage it skillfully, transforming your experience when under pressure. This mini-course is multi-faceted to help you learn and grow more. You’ll get:
- A short educational video
- A beautifully designed digital workbook that includes additional information and 6 hands on exercises to help increase your awareness and understanding of your stress response and develop your own personalized stress management plan
- A 2 week email challenge that will introduce you to a wide range of stress management strategies and tips
- 3 in the moment tools to use any time you feel stressed, tense, or are having a difficult time
Remember, stress is inevitable. Being stressed out is optional.