The research on stress has continued to expand exponentially in the years since Hans Selye first described what he called the General Adaptation Syndrome. We now know a great deal about how the human body and mind respond to stress. Scientists spend their entire careers researching our response to stress, and what makes some people more resilient than others. And that research can provide some exciting insights that can help you deal with stress in a much smarter way.

Not all stress is bad. Athletes or musicians use the stress of competition to raise their level of performance to its absolute peak. Business people or would-be politicians use the stress of deadlines to accomplish things many of the rest of us look at with amazement. These people have learned how to lean into stress. They choose stress and make it work to their advantage.

Your body and mind can develop an amazing ability to handle much more stress than you ever imagined IF … And that IF is the stuff that champions are made of. Here’s that secret sauce in three parts.

3 Keys to Deal With Stress Better

1. Increase stress gradually. Your muscles and cardiovascular system respond to physical exercise by becoming stronger. Gradually increasing the intensity of physical exercise strengthens your muscles and heart to function at a level you may never have thought you could. It’s the training effect.

The same principle works in your mental and emotional life. Your first day at a new job may be stressful, but not nearly as stressful as if you were suddenly dropped into a CEO position without any preparation. Chaplains, hospice nurses, and grief counselors are around death and dying perhaps daily and develop an ability to manage the emotional weight of those circumstances better than many of the rest of us. The key is managing the stress to ensure it is increasing gradually instead of all at once. And if outside circumstances seem to dump a bunch of stress on you all at once, deal with it in bite-sized pieces.

2. Allow recovery time between periods of stress. Your muscles need time to heal and repair themselves after a workout. Your mental muscles need time to recover as well.

Choose ways to rest and recover that are different from the usual causes of your stress. If you’re stressed by constantly working around demanding people, find times to be completely alone. If your solo creative or business endeavors keep you isolated, create times to be around friends and family. If you sit at a computer all day, get out and take a brisk walk.

3. Choose how to respond to your stress. Animal experiments show how powerful this can be. Rats in a cage where they are exposed to an electric shock will not become quickly overwhelmed if they are able to press a lever, jump to another cage, or in some other way take action to stop the shock. Other rats who have no ability to control the shocks will become overwhelmed much more quickly. Some sense of control makes all the difference.

“But we’re not rats,” you say. “Nobody gives me a lever to push to stop my stress. I have no control over my stress.”

Yes, you do. You have more control than you think. You may not be able to eliminate all the elements causing you stress, but you can choose how to respond to them. Simply recognizing that you have a choice can lessen the stress you feel.

Who would have less control over their serious and prolonged stress than prisoners of war? But not all POWs develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and some who do are able to overcome their symptoms and go on living well. Studying POWs has provided some fascinating insights into what mental factors are important in surviving extreme stress. Even under terrible circumstances, soldiers who chose to be optimistic experienced the best mental health outcomes and positive growth after their harrowing experience.

Choosing to focus on any positive aspects of your circumstances will allow you to be much more creative. You may even find aspects of your stress that you can harness to become more efficient, creative, and useful.

Learn how to manage your stress well. Pay attention to every aspect over which you have control. Allow the stress to increase gradually. Make sure you get periods for rest and renewal. And choose the way in which you respond to your stress.

Yes, there’s a level of stress that will overwhelm even the most resilient individual, but that level is much higher than you think. Who knows; you might even achieve things you never thought possible as a result of how you deal with stress.

Your Turn: What aspects of your stress might you have control over? How can you harness your stress to be more productive? Leave a comment below. 

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