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Most of us think of “stress” as something to avoid. What we don’t realise is that we depend on some stress symptoms to get things done daily.

Say your boss has just given you an important project to handle — it’s something you’ve been waiting for. Stoked by the news, your heart starts beating faster as ideas race through your mind. You’re not having a heart attack — you’re experiencing positive stress or eustress, which gives you energy and motivation to get the task done.

We experience eustress too when we fall in love — it spurs us to think of ways to strike up a conversation and get to know that girl or boy better. Eustress helps with stress management and is believed to increase mental alertness, awareness and even improves emotional and physical well-being.

Scientists have even found[1] that short bouts of stress can keep our brains alert and improve mental performance.

But stress turns nasty when there’s too much of it. If the boss keeps piling on work or your attempts to woo someone are repeatedly rebuffed, the good stress can become too much to bear, resulting in negative stress or distress. You no longer feel motivated as there seems to be no end in sight.

Make Stress Your Friend

asian women working together high-fiving each other  

Here’s a simple trick to help with negative stress management: regard it as a friend, not a foe.

A 2011 study[1], which tracked 30,000 American adults over eight years, found that those who experienced a lot of stress had a 43 percent increased risk of dying but this applied only to those who believed that the stress was harmful for their health.

Those who experienced a lot of stress but did not view it as harmful did not face the same mortality statistic.

As health psychologist Kelly McGonigal explained in this TED Talk[2], when you view a stressful situation as a harmful one, your heart rate goes up and your blood vessels constrict. If you feel this way often, the prolonged or chronic stress can harm your heart, lower your general immunity, and even bring on depression and suicidal thoughts.

But when you regard stress as useful and the experience as an opportunity to learn and grow[2], your body’s stress response changes: the blood vessels stay relaxed even if the heart rate is elevated.

And remember, even positive life changes like your first job or marriage can give you a little stress due to unfamiliarity and anxiety (pre-wedding jitters are so real!). These new experiences give us the opportunity to step out of our comfort zone, develop personally and learn new skills. In the process, we also become more aware of our strengths and areas for improvements.

Related: Overcoming Stress

Make Stressful Situations Your Guru

asian father meditating in the park as his son copies him

You can also get a better handle on stress with practice. Each time[3] we face a stressful or difficult situation, our brains rewire to remember and learn from it, said Ms McGonigal.

This “stress inoculation” helps us develop resistance against the effects of stressors, by preparing us in advance to handle stressful events successfully. Research[3] shows that most people draw on difficult past experiences to cope with their problems.

Pilots, astronauts, soldiers, elite athletes and emergency responders are regularly put through simulated drills to handle highly stressful situations effectively.

Singaporean Felix Tan, who summited Mount Everest in May 2016, prepared for the ascent by doing even more demanding climbs, albeit on lower mountains, in China. He also honed his mental stamina with training sessions that lasted more than 21 hours, based on advice that past Everest climbers had given him.

“When I was very tired, I told myself I can slow down but I cannot stop. I told myself I’ve gone through worse … more physically demanding climbs. When you think back and tell yourself ‘I’ve done this before’, you can draw a lot of strength from it,” he said.

Related: Accept Stress and Enjoy Life's Little Pleasures

Stress Makes Us Social

two chinese men playing basketball

Believe it or not but we all have an in-built response system for stress relief. When we’re stressed, our brains emit a neuro-hormone, oxytocin. Researchers[4] have found that oxytocin increases our trust in others, and compels us to tell others how we feel when we’re stressed. The more we reach out, the more oxytocin is released, which helps a person recover faster from the stress symptoms.

Perhaps more surprisingly, is that reaching out — not for help but to help — also increases a person’s stress tolerance. Researchers[5] from the University of Buffalo showed that every major stress event increased a person’s risk of death by 30 percent but when the individual also reported high rates of helping others, this risk was cancelled.

This suggests that the act of caring for others, while being in a stressed state, can act as a buffer against stress-induced mortality. A more recent study[6] confirmed that brief periods of helping others can help people to cope with their daily stress.

So the next time you feel stressed, a trip to the local soup kitchen or animal shelter might just help you breathe a little easier.


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References

  1. Kirby, E. D., Muroy, S. E., Sun, W. G., Covarrubias, D., Leong, M. J., Barchas, L. A., et al. (2013, Apr 16). Acute stress enhances adult rat hippocampal neurogenesis and activation of newborn neurons via secreted astrocytic FGF2. eLife, 1-23.
    Retrieved April 2016 from https://elifesciences.org/content/2/e00362

  2. McGonigal, K. (2013, Sep). How to make stress your friend [TED].
    Retrieved April 2016 from http://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend/transcript?language=en#t-850600

  3. McGonigal, K. (2015, May 8). How to be good at stress [TED].
    Retrieved April 2016 from http://ideas.ted.com/how-to-be-good-at-stress/

  4. Cardoso, C., Ellenbogen, M. A., Serravalle, L., Linnen, A. M. (2013, Nov). Stress-induced negative mood moderates the relation between oxytocin administration and trust: Evidence for the tend-and-befriend response to stress?. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 38(11), 2800-2804.
    Retrieved April 2016 from http://www.psyneuen-journal.com/article/S0306-4530(13)00183-2/abstract

  5. Poulin, M. J., Brown, S. L., Sillard, A. J., Smith, D. M. (2013, Sep). Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. American Journal of Public Health, 103(9), 1649-1655.
    Retrieved April 2016 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Giving+to+others+and+the+association+between+stress+and+mortality

  6. Raposa, E. B., Laws, H. B., Ansell, E. B. (2015, Dec 10). Prosocial Behavior Mitigates the Negative Effects of Stress in Everyday Life. Clinical Psychological Science.
    Retrieved April 2016 from http://cpx.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/12/10/2167702615611073.abstract