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How To Be Resilient: 5 Steps To Success When Life Gets Hard

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stress

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We always hear one thing about stress: it’s bad. I haven’t checked recently but I think that’s in the Constitution. Fortunately, stress is not that simple.

Researchers asked 30,000 adults how much stress they felt in the past year – and whether or not they thought stress was a negative. Eight years later the scientists circled back. Yup, you guessed it – the high stress people were 43% more likely to have died…

But only if they believed stress was bad for their health. Let that sink in for a second. (Yes, we are holding a masterclass in WTF.)

So what about the people in that study who didn’t think stress was a negative?

From The Upside of Stress:

People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress. The researchers concluded that it wasn’t stress alone that was killing people. It was the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful.

And this isn’t some one-off weirdo study. If you specifically study people who have a positive vision of stress you find they’re healthier, happier and more productive.

From The Upside of Stress:

Crum’s research shows that people who believe stress is enhancing are less depressed and more satisfied with their lives than those who believe stress is harmful. They have more energy and fewer health problems. They’re happier and more productive at work.

A heckler from the back of the room: “Oh yeah? Well, what about PTSD?”

PTSD is terrible. No dispute. But let’s talk about urine for a second. (Gross, I know, but I guarantee this is the only urine story you’re going to hear today so bear with me.) Can you predict PTSD based on stress hormone levels immediately after a traumatic incident? Well, somebody checked.

Researchers had people who had just survived a major car accident pee in a cup. One month later they checked in with them. The result? Patients who did not go on to develop PTSD had higher levels of adrenaline and cortisol immediately after the incident. More stress equaled less PTSD.

In fact, some psychotherapists now administer stress hormones during therapy and it helps anxiety sufferers and PTSD patients improve.

Study after study shows people – everyone from middle school students to Army Rangers — who have bigger surges of adrenaline and cortisol perform better under pressure. You know what doesn’t help? Staying calm.

From The Upside of Stress:

Despite most people’s belief that some adrenaline improves performance, but too much impairs performance, the evidence suggests otherwise. When it comes to performing under pressure, being stressed is better than being relaxed.

And it’s not all about performance either. People who experience more stress say their lives are more meaningful.

From The Upside of Stress:

In fact, every measure of stress that the researchers asked about predicted a greater sense of meaning in life… In contrast, the researchers reported that among individuals who appeared to be the most unhappy, experiencing high levels of shame and anger and low levels of joy, “there was a notable lack of stress.”

What the heck? Then why do we always hear that stress is terrible? Well, the whole idea started in 1936 with an endocrinologist names Hans Selye. His initial experiments did show stress was bad. But with more research he changed his tune. Later he would go on to actually recommend good stress as an antidote to bad stress saying, “There is always stress, so the only point is to make sure that it is useful to yourself and useful to others.”

Turns out stress is a lot more nuanced than we’ve been led to believe. Handled properly, it can make you smarter and more successful. It can make life meaningful. It can even make you more compassionate and kind. But the difference between good stress and bad stress lies in our mindset. How we perceive and interpret those physiological changes in our body. With the right mindset, stress is your friend.

So what do we need to do – other than a product recall on our stress-is-always-bad beliefs? For those answers we’ll turn to Stanford University’s Kelly McGonigal. Her eye-opening book is The Upside of Stress.

Ready to be more resilient? Let’s get to it…

 

I’m So Stressed… And That’s Awesome

First, a definition: “Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake.” You don’t stress much about stuff that you don’t perceive as important.

But those hormones (like adrenaline and cortisol) are, by themselves, emotionally neutral amplifiers of your physiology. They amp you up, but whether that’s a positive (excitement) or bad (anxious) is dependent on your mindset.

The three most common mindsets are: threat, challenge, or tend-and-befriend. When we’re scared or feel overwhelmed, those hormones produce a threat response. That’s bad. But when our mindset is more positive, those hormones are rocket fuel.

From The Upside of Stress:

…a challenge response increases self-confidence, motivates action, and helps you learn from experience; while a tend-and-befriend response increases courage, motivates caregiving, and strengthens your social relationships.

Pretty much everything you’ve heard about stress and heart attacks or other awful things is only related to the threat response. When you have a challenge response, stress actually makes you healthier and more effective.

From The Upside of Stress:

In fact, the tendency to have a challenge response, rather than a threat response, is associated with superior aging, cardiovascular health, and brain health… During business negotiations, a challenge response leads to more effective sharing and withholding of information, as well as smarter decision-making. Students with a challenge response score higher on exams, and athletes perform better in competitions. Surgeons show better focus and fine motor skills… Importantly, none of these studies showed that performance was enhanced by the absence of a stress response; it was enhanced by the presence of a challenge response.

Best part? We can control how we respond. With a simple mindset shift, research shows you can turn a threat response into a challenge or tend-and-befriend response. You can turn anxiously freaking out into “eye of the tiger.”

(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

Alright, a stressful situation hits. What’s the first step? It’s the exact opposite of what you usually tell yourself…

 

Don’t Calm Down

You’re giving a presentation in front of your boss and all the senior executives. Your job is on the line. Heart is pounding. Hands are trembling.

Is it better to try to calm yourself down or to feel excited? When surveyed, 91% of people thought it was best to calm down. But Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School decided to put that answer to the test.

Turns out people who told themselves to “be excited” felt more positive and more confident. And when judged by a panel, they objectively performed better, coming across as more competent.

Fighting your physiology is hard. The hormones are there. Telling them, “Shoo! Go away! Not now!” doesn’t work very well. Don’t resist the energy. Embrace it.

(To learn how to make emotionally intelligent friendships, click here.)

Okay, we’re not calming down. What’s the next thing to keep in mind?

 

Remind Yourself That Stress Is Good

To measure the effects of extreme tension, psychologists use something called the “Social Stress Test.” I’m not sure who came up with it, but I personally believe this person is the biggest sadist who has ever lived.

The first part is public speaking, something most people fear. But the people you’re speaking in front of are confederates – they’re in on it. And they have been instructed to look bored and angry as you give your talk. To yawn, roll their eyes and never ever smile. As if that wasn’t unpleasant enough, it’s followed by a timed math quiz. (Now I know what hell looks like.) The “Social Stress Test” has been shown to elevate stress hormone levels by 400%.

Before this study, half the subjects are told that stress is a positive, shifting them to a challenge mindset. The other half is told to just try and ignore the stress. Wanna guess what the results were for the first group? Correct answer wins a Red Lobster gift certificate…

From The Upside of Stress:

They showed greater confidence and engagement, and less anxiety, shame, and avoidance. Objectively, they performed better. Afterward, they were less distracted by thoughts of fear and failure.

Now some people might say: “Yeah, that’s fine in general — but what about for people who have a clinical anxiety disorder? This could kill them.”

Here’s the thing: in that study half the subjects did have social anxiety disorder. And the “stress is good” intervention made their results indistinguishable from people without a clinical condition. Everyone experiences heart pounding when things get tense. It’s how we interpret it that makes the difference.

So how do we leverage this?

From The Upside of Stress:

The first step is to acknowledge stress when you experience it. Simply allow yourself to notice the stress, including how it affects your body. The second step is to welcome the stress by recognizing that it’s a response to something you care about. Can you connect to the positive motivation behind the stress? What is at stake here, and why does it matter to you? The third step is to make use of the energy that stress gives you, instead of wasting that energy trying to manage your stress. What can you do right now that reflects your goals and values?

(To learn how to raise emotionally intelligent kids, click here.)

But what if it doesn’t work? What if you can’t convince yourself that the trembling hands are a positive?

That’s okay. We just need to address something deeper…

 

Think Of Your Resources

Any time you face a difficult situation, a little stress accountant in the back of your head is running the numbers to come up with an answer to the question: “Can I handle this?” He tabulates your skills and preparation, compares it to the perceived difficulty of the situation and decides if his little Excel spreadsheet says you’re in the red or in the black.

From The Upside of Stress:

If you believe that the demands of the situation exceed your resources, you will have a threat response. But if you believe you have the resources to succeed, you will have a challenge response.

How you think about your ability to do well in the situation makes the difference between stress-as-debilitating versus stress as Captain-America-Super-Soldier-Serum. If you get a big bill in the mail and your bank account is empty, you’re scared. If you have Bezos bucks, you chuckle. It’s all about how you see your resources.

So think of your strengths. The help you can get from friends. The times you’ve faced a similar challenge and performed well. And then think about that new resource you just learned about…

Your stress response. It’s a good thing – if you see it that way.

If you think stress is bad, your little accountant puts it in the “debits” column. If you think stress is good, he puts it in the “credits” column. When you perceive the heart pounding as something that’s dragging you down, you can be competent and fail. When you see it as a helper to be utilized, you just gained another resource.

And this is also the best way to help others. When they’re tense and you tell them to “calm down”, you’re implying that stress is bad. That they don’t have the resources and can’t handle it. Wrong message.

From The Upside of Stress:

Studies show that when people are told, “You’re the kind of person whose performance improves under pressure,” their actual performance improves by 33 percent.

(To learn the 4 rituals that will make you happy all the time, click here.)

Okay, but what if you’re not the hard-charging, competitive, “challenge response” kinda person? Maybe you’re more of a mild soul who likes chamomile tea and Kenny G. Not a problem.

A positive perception of stress still helps. We just need to channel it differently…

 

Think of Your “Bigger-Than-Self” Goals

Remember, a “challenge response” isn’t the only positive stress mindset. We also have “tend-and-befriend.” Thinking about the need to help others in times of stress increases courage and motivation.

So when stress bears down, think about your “Bigger-than-self goals.” How what you need to accomplish affects the lives of those you love. Studies show this mindset eliminates the threat response and increases performance, even in tense situations like job interviews.

From The Upside of Stress:

Participants who had reflected on their bigger-than-self goals showed more signs of affiliation with the interviewers, such as smiling, making eye contact, and unconsciously mimicking the interviewers’ body language—all behaviors shown to increase rapport and strengthen social connection. Further, raters preferred what these participants had to say, rating their answers as more inspiring than the responses of participants who had not contemplated their values.

Asking the boss for a raise? Don’t think about that fancy new caviar spoon you’ve had your eye on. Think about how that money is going to make life better for your kids or your partner.

Or maybe you’re writing a blog post on the benefits of stress, but you just don’t feel motivated and want to take a nap. Think about how that post could improve the lives of the people who read your stuff. A study currently in progress at the University of Barker (n=1), seems like it might confirm the effectiveness of this technique.

(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)

Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and answer the biggest question – why the heck does life gotta be so stressful in the first place?

 

Sum Up

Here’s how to be more resilient:

  • Stress is bad when we see it as bad: We can respond to stress with a threat, a challenge or a “tend-and-befriend” mindset. And with a little work, you can alter which one you have.
  • Don’t calm down: Do not try to relax. Embrace the excitement. It’s not a crisis – it’s a strong cup of coffee.
  • Remind yourself stress is a helper: Whatever you’re dealing with it’s not as bad as the wall-to-wall nightmare of “The Social Stress Test.” Remind yourself those physiological changes are actually a nitrous system for your brain. Change “I’m so stressed!” to “Ahh, I’m so stressed.”
  • Think about your resources: Remember your strengths, the help you can get from friends, and your prior successes. And don’t forget the biggest resource of all: those stress hormones. If you welcome them, they’ll come to your aid.
  • Focus on “bigger-than-self” goals: Never get between a momma bear and her cubs. When we remind ourselves of how what we’re doing can help others, “awful” stress becomes a courage and motivation booster.

When you survey people about how they cope with stress, 82% say they draw strength from past stressful experiences. And when researchers interview the folks who thrive under stress you hear something similar: they see it as an opportunity to grow. They choose meaning over avoiding discomfort. They embrace the challenge.

That’s inspiring, but why the heck does life need to be so challenging all the time? Good lord, enough already.

In my totally unscientific but anecdotally unassailable opinion, the best answer to this comes from the great thinker Alan Watts. He proposed a little thought experiment…

Imagine you could choose your dreams at night. And due to how weird and distorted time can be in a dream, you could live an entire amazing life in one night’s dream. So in 8 hours of sleep, you could have a 75-year life that fulfilled all your wishes. Each night you would lay down and experience a life of pure pleasure. Sounds awesome, right? And it would be…

But after a while, inevitably, you’d get a bit bored. But you can choose your dreams. So you’d make a dream life where you had a little less control. A surprise or two, just to keep it exciting. Movies are more fun when the hero has a close call. When it doesn’t seem as easy. They still win in the end, but the tension makes it exciting.

And so night after night, you’d add some more difficulty to make the pleasure that much sweeter at the end. A little extra challenge to the dream each time, until finally…

“You would dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today.”

You’re not overwhelmed by life. It’s just enough stress to make the dream a challenge. Enough to make the rewards that much sweeter in the end. It’s all how you perceive it.

I would love to think this post changed your life. But if you did find it helpful, it will actually work by a very different route. It won’t change your life…

It will confirm the wonder and joy of your life as it already is.

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