Learn to appreciate the benefits of being stressed out.
Just reading the word can make your heart race, but that may be a good thing (yes, really!).
Think of the exhilaration of a roller coaster ride or the elation you feel during a presentation when you’re completely in control of the room. That’s actually moderate stress, but you may think of it as a challenge or exhilaration because it was positive, says Elizabeth Kirby, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the neurology and neurological sciences department at Stanford University.
When you experience moderate levels of stress like this, your mental acuity is enhanced. “Your memories are more accurate and reliable,” says Kirby. Her research published in the journal eLife also found that a certain level of stress actually helps stimulate the birth of more neurons in the brains of rats.
What’s more, stress can save your life. When you’re crossing a busy intersection, stress sets into motion a series of reactions (for example, increased blood flow to motor areas such as your arms and legs—the “fight or flight reaction”), explains Sherrie Bourg Carter, PsyD, a psychologist and author of High-Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout. This natural response makes you more attentive and ready to quickly respond to outside threats, like a car racing past at 50 miles per hour. And that same bodily reaction happens when you face other stressors, such as taking an important exam or playing in a big game. Stress improves your performance because it motivates you to pay attention and focus, explains Bourg.
However, although some stress can be good, an excessive amount is not.
“Stress follows a u-shaped curve,” says Judy Ho, PhD, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. What this means: Too little stress is bad and puts you in the bored or unproductive range. Just the right amount means you are engaged and challenged. But too much stress puts you back in the bad range, as your stress becomes so overwhelming that it can paralyze or harm you.
The key to harnessing stress for good is to figure out your threshold.
We each have a different limit for letting situations get to us and we all react to stress differently, says Bourg. Stress, in many ways, is subjective. Giving a presentation once a week at work might feel completely manageable and motivating to some people, whereas others would think of it as a spirit-crushing pattern, adds Kirby.
Two ways to crack the code:
1. Ask yourself a simple question, suggests Kirby: “Is this something that is easy to handle or is it overwhelming?” If it feels too overwhelming, you have your answer.
2. Pay attention to procrastination. “When you start to put tasks off because you can’t wrap your head around how to get through them, it’s a telltale sign that you have too much stress,” says Ho.
If your stress levels check out as too high, focus on finding a stress management activity that works for you, like making a priority list (break it down by must do today, must do this week and must do this month) or adopting a new exercise routine.
What Overachievers Need to Know
Think you function well with very high levels of stress? Even when you’re succeeding outwardly and getting more done than ever before, you should know that your schedule may still wreak havoc internally. Cortisol—the stress hormone—gets switched on when you’re stressed. If that continues at very high levels for a long period of time, it can weaken your immune system and increase your blood pressure, says Ho.
So, if you love being super busy at all times and juggling multiple projects at once, take some time to simplify your life—even if just for a few minutes per day. Ho recommends taking a mindfulness shower. Dial back and pay attention to all of the various sensations (like the temperature of the water and what it feels like on your skin) rather than running through your to-do list over and over again. This can help your body tamper its stress response, even if the rest of your life is going full speed ahead.
Stress can benefit the brain in very real ways, so don’t automatically assume that all stress is bad stress. Your mission should be to identify your tipping point and then actively work to stay in your optimal range, so stress doesn’t stress you out.