How to Turn Off Harmful Stress Like a Switch
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Stress is defined as “mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.” We’ve all felt it, but where does stress come from?
Humans are unique in our capacity to predict what might happen next. We rely on our amazing ability to anticipate the future better than any other animal, and this ability is a feature of our unusual intelligence.
Unlike other animals, which (as far as we know) react solely to what’s going on in their environment, humans can imagine entire realities in our heads. These alternate realities make us act in all sorts of strange ways.
While imagining the future motivates us to pursue what we want, it also comes with a cost. All that thinking about what might happen next is stressful.
What if I told you that same powerful difference in focus and mindset is impacting you right now?
You’re about to learn how to create a real-life forcefield against the stress you face every day.
The stress we experience is based on our perception of what’s going to happen next. If we anticipate a threatening situation, our body releases stress hormones to prepare us to face the threat.
But if we believe we have control over a threatening stimulus, then we don’t need to prepare for that threat in the same way. We don’t need to be on full alert with the fight-or-flight response gearing us up for survival.
This change in focus—from the many uncontrollable aspects of life to the few controllable ones—can have a profound effect. That’s because our perception of reality is, to a large extent, created by the focus of our attention.
Our human tendency is to focus on threats and problems. For the sake of our emotional wellness, it makes sense to modify that automatic tendency. You can’t control the stressors that come your way, but you can influence the focus of your own attention. That’s why we recommend you focus on the things that give you back a feeling of control.
Want another tool to combat stress? Counterintuitively, one of the best things we can add to your toolbelt is an entirely different belief about stress—one befriending it instead of battling against it.
When people believed stress was something bad that must be avoided, it had a far worse impact on their health. In contrast, among those who perceive stress as a normal part of pursuing goals, there was no correlation between higher stress and poor health outcomes.
Feeling out of control makes us feel even more stress, perpetuating the harmful cycle. Perhaps it’s time to consider an alternative view of stress. What if we stopped seeing stress as something abnormal or threatening to your future health and instead thought of it as something that empowers us to be our best?
An athlete who knows there’s a short break around the corner is capable of pushing harder during periods of extreme exertion. And if you think about this in the context of your own life, it probably makes sense. It’s easy to push hard for the last two days of work before a vacation, or even the last hour of a typical workday. That’s because you know you’re about to get a break.
When you intentionally push yourself outside of your comfort zone and schedule periods of rest and recuperation, something interesting happens—your capacity to endure stress increases.
An entrepreneur who feels constantly pressed for time during her nine-hour workday might experiment with doing a 14-hour workday once per week for three weeks. Each of these long workdays is followed by a shortened workday of only six hours. In this case, she is stretching her sense of what’s possible by working longer than what feels comfortable. Then she recovers, taking it easy the next day.
The effect is less stress.
You don’t have to choose between a healthy life and a life of full engagement with high, hard goals. You can have both.
The way to have both is to take control of the stress you put on yourself. By proactively seeking stress in forms that further your goals, you can change your set point for what feels overwhelming. Doing so will eliminate the feeling that stress is happening to you. It’s instead something chosen by you. You’re taking control of stress before it takes control of you.
Stress isn’t your enemy. It’s not even a bad thing. Stress is, in a very real way, what you make of it. You can take control of it, or you can let it control you. The choice is yours.
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