This magical built in biological mechanism that is there to save us from danger is in many cases is harming us daily. The same rush of adrenaline and cortisol and physical reactions such as increased heart rate and tightening muscles that are there to protect our ancient selves from external treats such as saber toothed tigers are now getting cross wired by our modern selves by the demands of society and the unprecedented digital information flooding into our daily lives.
Our brains perceive threats everywhere and are keeping us in a chronic state of high alert. With over 3/4 of the population stating that they are experiencing either the physical or psychological symptoms of stress and 1/3 feeling they live with extreme daily stress. I think it is safe to say that being “stressed” is the new baseline normal many of us deal with in our lives today.
Stress is a killer and is well accepted that chronic and extreme stress is a contributing factor to many physical and mental health issues. Being in a constant state of flight or fight is draining our precious energy and often our joy of life. Heart disease, cancer, body pain, sleeping issues, anxiety, and depression to name a few can in many cases be linked back to our stress-filled lifestyles.
So if we accept that stress is our new normal and it will kill us if we ignore it, what can we do to help ourselves in the new high-pressure environment we now find ourselves in? My suggestion is to invite more healthy stress into our lives and embrace stress as an opportunity for change. We can’t hide from it, so let’s make it work for us instead of against us.
When I think of using healthy stress to build up overall stress resilience, I see a comparison to physical exercise. At first, we cannot work out for long periods of time, we feel weak and out of breath, but as we do more, we become more adaptable, coordinated and our recovery time improves significantly. The body miraculously rebuilds our muscles stronger because we have broken them down with repeated and safe exercise.
The same is true for exposure to short term healthy stress in helping build your stress muscles. Short bursts of stress have been proven healthy for the mind and body, improving cognitive function, boosting immune systems, and even stimulating brain cell growth. We become hyper-focused when under stress, suddenly extremely creative, great at problem-solving, and tap into our vast inner resources. We enlist the healthy attributes of being under stress and use them to produce a positive outcome and our relationship with stress is firmly altered.
Here are some examples of activities associated with healthy or good stress:
Travel/Exploring, New Learning, Setting-challenging goals, Stimulating conversations, Challenging but realistic projects, Pursuing passions or hobbies, Exercise, Learning new skills, Public speaking, Learning a musical instrument, Art Projects, volunteering.
“Use it or lose it”, is a saying that often comes to mind when I think of challenging myself mentally and physically. Finding conscious ways to stretch my comfort zones, set new goals, try new activities, and interpret that nervous feeling in my gut as I am in the right place doing the right things at this moment.
I realize that during our current global pandemic we feel our freedom of choice has been taken away and our old normal routines are no longer available. I would challenge all of you to take our new situation as an invitation to find ways to alter your relationship with stress. By being aware that these built-in mechanisms are working for you (not against you) there is an opportunity to harness and consciously direct the dynamic energies created.
We still have many choices, they just look and feel different than the choices we had 6 weeks ago. This is not the time to double down on bad habits and ride this out, it is time to dig deep and challenge ourselves to learn, lead, and grow. You got this!