HARNESSING THE POWER OF STRESS
The Quick and Dirty
Stress resilience is all over the media and stress has such a bad reputation, but it’s not all bad! In fact, we can learn to harness the power of stress to become more resilient, more creative and more courageous in our life, relationships and career. We can do this by:
1. Changing our perception of the feelings of stress and of stressful events.
2. Creating intentionally stressful experiences (redline activities) that increase our stress resilience.
This is the first part of a series of articles on harnessing the power of stress. Read on to learn more!
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The Nitty Gritty
Harnessing the Power of Stress
Stress is often thought of as a bad thing, as something to be avoided. The ironic thing is that so much time and money is spent trying to avoid or manage stress and it seems to me that despite it all, people are more stressed than ever. Is it possible that avoidance and management are not the keys to effectively deal with stress?
It’s clear that stress is a major issue and as some in the health field call it, “the silent killer.” Is this the whole story though? If our stress response is an important and innate aspect of our physiology, is it possible that it serves more than just the purpose of protecting us from a traumatic and untimely death?
The scientific literature from cognitive neuroscience and psychology tells of two different kinds of stress. The stress that promotes growth, and the chronic or traumatic stress that causes disease. In both situations the same system (actually it’s a collection of systems) of the body is being activated, namely the sympathetic-autonomic system, or simply the automatic stress response system.
What matters is not that we are stressed but, 1) what’s causing the stress, 2) how we think about the causes of the stress, 3) how we feel about the experience of stress, and 4) how much perceived control we have over the source of stress.
There are sets of practices known well to those in the elite military and athletic communities designed specifically to put someone at their edge for relatively short, controlled periods of time. The goal of these practices is not just to sift out those who can from those who can’t, but to build a state of physical, mental and emotional resilience. The adage here is “choose the stress you know so you learn to become more comfortable with the stress you don’t.” I call this riding the redline.
“Choose the stress you know so you learn to become more comfortable with the stress you don’t.”
It’s typical that as we grow up and take on more responsibilities, life seems to become more complex. As we age and our facilities begin to slow, life also seems to increase in complexity. In both scenarios the perceived complexity of life is overwhelming our capacities and we experience multiple series of acute stresses that over time accumulate into chronic stress. This happens insidiously and we are unaware that we are tailoring our life to avoid the pain of stressors, and limiting the potential of our life experiences and the expression of ourselves and our gifts. In my former career as a functional pain specialist I saw that unconscious pain avoidance was the number one perpetuator of chronic pain and suffering. It’s the same with stress. I feel that our aversion to stress is a major contributor to how poorly we respond to it.
It’s truly impossible to avoid stress. Even if I lived in a completely safe bubble of my own making, I would still encounter stress. In fact, things that would not normally be stressful might become very stressful, just from the act of avoidance.
So, how do we renegotiate our relationship with stress? In this series of articles I’m not going to tackle the issue of managing chronic stress and all the myriad ways of doing so. I may address that in a later article, but frankly if you google “evidence-based stress management,” you’ll find thousands of articles from hundreds of experts. What I want to focus on here is riding the redline; incorporating things in our life that actually elicit a stress response as a means to become more resilient. This is a proactive relationship to stress rather than a reactive one. In the next series of articles we will explore the stress recipe outlined in the following 4 questions:
1. What’s causing the stress?
2. How do we think about the causes of the stress?
3. How do we feel about the experience of stress?
4. How much perceived control do we have over the source of stress?
We will use this as a foundation to safely create intentional stress for ourselves as a means to grow in resilience and personal courage. We will also explore different ways that you can create your own specific redline exercise and learn to ride it.
Click here to read the next article in the series
1. Psychologist, Kelly Mcgonigal’s Ted Talk on stress resilience
2. Dr. Andrew Huberman’s discussion about frustration, neuroplasticity, stress resilience and accelerated learning