Five Ways to Make Stress Work for You

Yes, there's such a thing as good stress—and with practice and awareness, you can find the positive energy in any stressful situation.

By Jeffrey Rossman, PhD June 14, 2010

Good public speakers accept their nervous energy as an advantage.

RODALE NEWS, LENOX, MA—Stress has gotten a very bad rap. Yes, it’s true that too much cortisol, nature’s stress hormone, will make you fat, sleepless, and forgetful. And overwhelming stress can give you a heart attack. However, not all stress is created equal. Negative stress, or distress, is what wears down your immunity and poses a health risk. It can also impair your performance and productivity. If your mind has ever gone blank from test anxiety, or you’ve choked in a tennis match, you’ve been sabotaged by distress.

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On the other hand, positive stress. Good stress, or eustress, can actually feel invigorating and make you stronger and more productive. The good news is that you have a lot of control over whether a particular stressor is positive or negative. Often, the difference between bad and good stress is simply a matter of how you perceive a situation. And if you perceive it positively, stress can give you the energy and alertness to perform at a high level. Many of the people I work with thrive on stress. They look forward to challenging projects, deadlines, and risk. They don’t mind feeling a sense of urgency. In fact, they welcome it.

THE DETAILS: Consider one of the most universally stressful experiences—public speaking. Many people, even some with loads of experience at it, find their heart racing and their palms sweating as they anticipate getting up in front of an audience. However, even the most reluctant public speaker can learn how to turn the experience into a source of positive stress with a few specific strategies.

Karen, one of my clients, has a fear of public speaking. Ironically, she’s actually a good speaker—once she gets going. She can be funny, articulate, and sincere. It’s in the days and weeks before her presentation that her anticipatory anxiety can spiral into a full-blown panic attack. However, once she is about three minutes into her presentation, she does fine. It’s the lead-up and the first two minutes that make her palms sweat. Here’s how Karen turned her distress into eustress:

• She worked on how to anticipate speaking in the days and weeks before the presentation. She practiced seeing and feeling her presentation positively. She imagined the attendees wishing her well, and being grateful for what she shared.

• She worked on reinterpreting her symptoms of anxiety. In the moments before and during her presentation, when she began to feel her heart beating faster and her palms sweating, she welcomed the feeling of anxiety. She even came to feel reassured by the anxiety, interpreting it as her body’s way of helping her to be fully energized and alert.

WHAT IT MEANS: Whether or not something is stressful to you depends on how you perceive it. Two people can experience the same event and have very different reactions to it, depending on their attitude and how they interpret the event. You can develop a “stress-hardy” attitude by learning how to perceive, and respond to, challenges constructively.

Taking charge of how you react to stress does more than make you more comfortable. Occasional sweaty palms or butterflies in your stomach won't put you in the hospital. But if you have prolonged symptoms of stress, you are flirting with health risks. For example, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, frequent insomnia, and frequent colds and infections are all consequences of chronic stress. If you’re self-medicating your stress with drugs or excessive food or alcohol, you’re putting yourself even more at risk.

Here are five tactics for turning negative stress into a positive experience:

• Don’t be afraid of fear. Welcome it. If you're in a challenging situation and you feel your heart beating faster and your palms getting a little sweaty, just acknowledge this to yourself and reassure yourself that it’s normal and you’ll be fine. In fact, it's more than fine: Having some adrenaline flowing through your body can actually help you perform better, with more energy and emotional vitality. Accept your feelings and accept yourself. You’ll feel more in control and your anxiety will likely diminish.

• Maintain a positive expectation. If you’re giving a presentation or any other performance, imagine it positively. Enact it in your mind, picturing yourself doing a great job. Imagine your audience being receptive and appreciative. Repeat often. Your positive expectancy helps you feel confident and energized, helping to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Enact the performance in real life, too, by practicing and making sure you have done your homework and are fully prepared. Knowing that you're prepared for the task will boost your confidence. Positive expectancy is based on a realistic appraisal of your ability, not magic.

• Talk to yourself positively when facing a stressful challenge, with thoughts like: “I can handle this—it’s no big deal,” “I’ve dealt with harder things than this,” “What can I learn from this?” and “How can I grow from this?” Again, be sure to prepare and practice to the extent that it's possible, since this will reinforce your positive thoughts.

• Reject perfectionism and reinterpret failure. Doing well does not require perfection, and a less-than-perfect performance is not failure. A new interpretation of failure might be failing to try new things because of fear.

• Befriend your breath. Breathing is the all-purpose stress reliever, always available. Slow, full, rhythmic breathing will help you manage stress and feel more in control.

For ideas on easing stress, check out the natural remedy finder

Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA, and author of The Mind-Body Mood Solution.