Why stress is actually good for us

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Part 1 of 2 – see part 2 here: Reaching Out and Reaching In

Me and stress go back a long way. I was only 9 when my English teacher labelled me “the little worrier”. As I grew older “just relax” and “don’t you know stress is bad for you” became the way others most often related to me.

I’m sure their advice was well meant, intended to help me face the challenges that are an integral part of life. Somehow, decades of advice, that I did quite honestly try to take to heart, did not have the intended effect. A challenge still made me stressed, and I added to the stress by worrying about the harm I was causing myself in the process.

Don’t think about the pink elephant

When was the last time that rule worked on you? Being told not to do think about or feel something is the very thing that keeps coming back in your wandering mind and haunts you constantly. Being told not to stress made me see everything as stressful and increased the stresses in my life…!

Believing is everything

Finally, analysis from the University of Wisconsin on a study done on 30,000 U.S adults asking them how much stress they have had in their lives and whether they think this stress is harmful for their health shows that stress is indeed harmful – BUT only if you believe it to be so! Not only that, the participants who believed stress to be good for them actually had better health and were less likely to worry than even those who had minimal stresses in their lives. So much for the scare-mongering I received all my life!

Change that mind set

These results gave me the much needed consolation that what I needed to change then was not life – which is often a futile attempt anyway – but my attitude towards it. That in itself was a very empowering thought. Mindsets are like muscles – the more we use a certain mindset, the easier it becomes to use. Like muscles, the neural fibres in our brains that support the new way of thinking become denser, the increase in energy flow makes them more efficient and our ability to fall back upon more positive thoughts and behaviours becomes habitual.

Use it or lose it

It gets even better. The brain is a very energy dense muscle – for a mere 4% of our body weight, it uses up to 20% of our energy supplies! It is thus extremely efficient, always figuring out where to direct its limited energy supply. The basic principle it uses is that of ‘use it or lose it’. Whatever neural fibres we do not use, it ends up dropping them. And so, just like we can build an empowering mindset, we can also get rid of a negative way of thinking.

The only way to grow

This is neuroplasticity – the molding of our brains through experiences or patterns of thought. Shirking away from challenges that we find stressful and taking the easy way out decreases our ability to handle adversities when they do happen – for no life is complete without them. This stalls our growth and limits our happiness since life is dependent on growth to be fulfilling.

So welcome the stresses in your life and look forward to upward spirals of growth and flourishing!

 

Now I’d love to hear back from you! How do you handle the stresses in your life? Do you find that you have grown as a person through them?

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