How to Use Stress to Your Advantage

9/21/2016
Susan David

You can’t go more than five minutes these days without hearing about stress: stress tests, stress management, how everyone’s eventual cause of death will probably be — you guessed it — stress. We humblebrag about stress, we complain about it, we take yoga classes and meditate to get rid of it. We’re obsessed.

But I’m about to propose something that might sound crazy: You don’t need to get rid of stress to live a happy, fulfilling life.

Many self-help models suggest that a satisfying life can only be found when you get rid of negative thoughts and feelings. But in my work on “emotional agility,” I’ve found that attempting to get rid of stress can actually make you more stressed. It’s better to acknowledge the power of emotion and ride the waves, so to speak, coming out stronger on the other side so you can make decisions that aren’t stress-based.

Think of your stress as a radio station you want to turn off. You wouldn’t try to drown out the bad station by playing other music on top of it, would you? Of course not. You’d find the dial button and move to another channel, not eliminating the first station but choosing the second station instead. Similarly, trying to cover up stress with positive thoughts or behaviors usually does nothing to drown out the stress. And when we fail to eliminate it, we feel more anxious. We get stuck in a never-ending stress cycle.

In the larger scheme of things, stress is incredibly useful. It’s an important evolutionary response to danger, an automatic tool that takes over in the event of an emergency. At the sight of something dangerous (or worrisome), your stress responses activate, helping you run faster, jump higher, see better, and think quicker. Stress is the body’s best weapon; it’s what kept us alive for years, taking us from prey to predator. We can’t quash our stress response no matter how hard we try — we need it.

But the question, then, is how we can use stress for good. If we can’t get rid of it, what should we do with it? Here are some of my favorite strategies.
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