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Leveraging Stress for Success

Stress doesn’t feel good… it makes us grumpy, distracted, and tense. Some people overeat while others have no appetite at all. Some people withdraw and others lash out.  It affects us differently, but none of us are immune to the everyday stresses of life. More than 90% of doctors' visits are for stress related ailments.


Think about the physiological changes that come with stress. Your neck and shoulders get tense, your palms get sweaty and clammy, your heart starts to race, your blood pressure goes up, your breathing gets rapid and shallow, and your anxiety level increases. What if you could actually use all of that to your advantage? 

Superior athletes do it all the time. Those butterflies sharpen their focus and put them in the right headspace to compete. The difference is that athletes see the stress as a positive rather than a negative. Pressure enhances performance rather than inhibits it.

In her book, The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal defines stress as what happens when something we care about is at stake.  Stress reminds us of what is important.

When the body encounters stress, it pumps hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and endorphins which fuel the brain and body with blood and oxygen resulting in increased energy, heightened alertness and focus.  Although stress-induced arousal has traditionally been viewed as negative, certain endocrine responses to stress can improve physical health and cognitive performance. In some cases, stress hormones actually induce growth and release chemicals into the body that rebuild cells, synthesize proteins and enhance immunity. Researchers call this effect physiological thriving.

Research conducted at UC Berkeley found that intermittent stressful events on rats triggered the release of growth proteins with in turn led to the growth of new neurons.  Two weeks later, those mature neurons improved the mental performance of the rats. While the study of stress and new cell growth is still being explored, scientists agree that certain amounts of regulated stress can create the optimum conditions for behavioral and cognitive performance. 

The difference between stress that works for us and stress that works against us is how we react to it. When we perceive the stress to be a threat, it puts the downstairs brain (survival brain) in charge rather than the upstairs brain (thinking brain).  When the downstairs brain is in charge, we aren’t thinking, we’re reactive and focused on safety. Conversely, when we can learn how to shift our perception of stress from a threat to a challenge, we put the thinking brain in charge and we are able to fuel creativity from the flow of inspiration.  

We have the power to rewire our brains to leverage stress for creativity if we understand the two main streams of mental activity and how they influence whether we use stress as inspiration for creativity or a detour to reactivity. Neuroscience research by Matt Lieberman shows that affect labeling, or putting feelings into words, doesn't just help us manage negative emotions, it actually diminishes the neurological response to them.

Lieberman and his team found that by naming the stress (i.e., "I'm worried that I'm not going to finish this project," or "I'm stressed about our finances"), it actually shifts the neural activity from the automatic subconscious centers to the regions that process higher level executive functions. 

In one study, participants in a brain scan were shown negative emotional images.  When asked to label the emotion the images invoked, neural activity moved from the amygdala region (the seat of emotion) to the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain in which we do our conscious and deliberate thinking.  

Identifying the stress enables you to respond to it with intention rather than react to it with emotion.

Once you've specified the source of your stress, the next step is to own it. Remember that we stress about things that are important to us; that the stakes matter. If we didn't care, that person/place/thing/situation wouldn't matter. That realization changes the context from stress to motivation; the focus shifts from the negative emotion to something important.

The Navy SEALs are the perfect example of leveraging stress for greater success. They are pushed and tested in arduous training exercises designed to help them discover motivation and meaning in the stress.

“After multiple years of back-to-back deployments, post-traumatic stress disorder continued to grow within the SEAL community.  Learning about post-traumatic growth, leaning to ask ‘how could these experiences serve us?’ and being pushed to own the experiences that we had been through and use them to fuel our future, proved a powerful tool in helping our individuals, teams and organization thrive, not in spite of the stress but because of it.” - Former SEAL Commander Curt Cronin

 Understanding how to reappraise your mindset about stress and self-doubt will help you mobilize your energy and your resources to take care of whatever is at stake for you.  That just means approaching stress mindfully – with openness, curiosity and kindness rather than anger, fear or judgment. 


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