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28 Aug 2015

Making Stress Work for You

Stress is an everyday part of life, whether it's due to financial pressures, long work hours, or interpersonal problems. While most people suffer under stress, letting it annoy them and beat them down, others see it as an exciting opportunity for growth. By learning how to manage and work with your stress, you can be more productive and less anxious in everyday life and learn a lot about yourself along the way.

According to a recent study by the Harvard Business School, workplace stress is bad news for your health: "We find that job insecurity increases the odds of reporting poor health by about 50%, high job demands raise the odds of having a physician-diagnosed illness by 35%, and long work hours increase mortality by almost 20%." Personal stress is also known to influence health, with divorce and moving house two well-known examples.

Some people go to extreme lengths to avoid stress, whether that means never spending money, working part-time jobs, or avoiding difficult relationships. According to Dr. Robert Maunder, however, a psychiatrist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, a total lack of stress is not the answer: “The absence of stress is boredom, so some stress is desirable... And while stress that is too intense is rarely going to be positive, there are positive ways that you can deal with it.” At the end of the day, it's not about avoiding stress altogether, because that's impossible, it's about making your stress work for you.

According to a famous study from the University of Wisconsin in 2012, "higher levels of reported stress and the perception that stress affects health were independently associated with an increased likelihood of worse health and mental health outcomes." It seems that stress is only bad for you when you believe it is, with people who reported the existence and impact of stress facing a 43 percent increased risk of premature death. According to Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a lecturer at Stanford University, "When people had a lot of stress in their lives and didn't hold that view, they seemed to be protected against mortality."

By running away from stressful situations, you are likely to see stress as a threat. By embracing these same situations, not only do you regain power, you also give yourself an opportunity to find a solution. "Studies show that people who think of stress this way are more likely to feel like they have the resources to handle it, such as self-efficacy and self-confidence," says McGonigal. Worry and anxiety only exist when people imagine negative outcomes without having any effective plans for prevention.

By thinking and planning for success instead of failure, you can work with your stress instead of letting it beat you down. While it's difficult being rational when the going gets tough, there are some well-known and very effective strategies. By defining the problem at the outset, you can put things in perspective. By focusing on the long-term benefits of your situation, you can learn to grow into the bigger picture. By doing exercise or household chores, you can learn to move through your stress. But most of all, it's important to remember that stress is an important and necessary part of life, and a natural precursor of growth.

Image source: Rob Hyrons/