Dealing with stress

With a positive approach, physical and mental stress can both be helpful in moving from a fixed to a growth mindset. Research has found that people who adopt the mindset that “stress is enhancing” experience more exceptional performance and fewer negative health symptoms (Crum & Crum, 2018).

It’s easy to try and avoid stress entirely, especially since we operate in overdrive way too often. Instead of finding the balance, we swing from each end of the spectrum to try and find better ways to cope. This affects our mental, physical and financial health as we find ourselves making decisions that have tradeoffs that sometimes sit in our blindspots.

We see this in our personal choices, but also in the way we interact with others. We might overspend in order to make a partner or child happy, or we might underspend in order to keep ourselves feeling like we’re minimising the impact on our finances. We might avoid certain conversations, or spend an unhealthy amount of time on one activity in order to avoid others.

In their research with athletes and Navy SEALS, Crum and Crum developed a three-step approach to harnessing the positive aspects of stress while reducing negative health impacts.

Step one – “See your stress”

Don’t attempt to ignore stress. Label it. Seeing it as something positive, rather than to be avoided, can change our physical, cognitive, and behavioural response to it.

Say to yourself: “I am stressed because I haven’t discussed our monthly budget with my partner.”

Step two – “Own it”

When you are at risk of being overwhelmed by stress, own it. Say to yourself: “I need to make time to have this conversation and stop avoiding it.”

Step three – “Use it”

Your body and mind have evolved to respond to stress; use that energy, alertness, and heightened concentration to boost your mind. Be open to the opportunity. Use the stress to energise and motivate yourself to have that conversation you’ve been avoiding.

Reframing stress to something positive can enable you to overcome existing and future obstacles.

Another psychiatrist, Professor Steve Peters, specialises in the human mind. His bestseller, The Chimp Paradox, explains the inner workings of the brain using what he describes as the “Chimp Model.” It consists of three elements: the human, the chimp, and the computer, and can help us understand why we behave in certain ways when under stress.

According to Peters, the human element uses a logical and rational approach to solving problems. The chimp element describes the fast-reacting, instinctual parts of the brain. It solves problems emotionally and often reacts impulsively, frequently causing us problems. The final element, the computer, stores previous experiences and uses this information to advise the human and the chimp. It represents your memory and a set of learned, automatic responses.

Ultimately, dealing with stress is a key skill to living a life that we’ve planned and designed. Without coping mechanisms and language to label, own and use our stress, and understand our motivations, we will frequently find ourselves stuck in situations that we could very likely avoid.

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