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 (along with these other heart attack triggers). 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.
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: