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How to make stress your best friend

How to make stress your best friend

August 24, 2017

What’s your definition of stress?

I’ll tell you mine: “when perceived demand exceeds capacity”. Pay attention to the word “perceived.” You’ll soon see why.

Conventional wisdom says, “Less stress equals happiness, and more stress equals pain”. We’re conditioned to steer clear of the stress bogeyman. And it’s not for nothing.

Just spend a few minutes browsing health magazines. Research shows that stress is the cause of 60% of all human illness and disease. Stress causes the US over $300 billion in medical expenses and lost productivity. 1 out of 5 Americans suffer from “extreme stress.”

Now I’m not here to deny research. The facts are facts. But, there’s a part of the puzzle that’s missing from these stats that makes all the difference.

And this one point can make all the difference for you, your productivity and your happiness.

See, the question is all wrong. It’s not “IS stress bad?” It’s, “HOW MUCH stress is bad?”

Sounds simple? Let me explain.

I recently came across a Harvard Business Review video that changed how I look at stress. In the video, “When Stress Helps You Get More Done”, the researcher explains that stress is an arousal mechanism that follows a bell curve. Too little stress, and we’re bored and unproductive. Too much, we move into anxiety and paralysis.

The most productive, fulfilled people are somewhere in the middle of the bell curve.

Stop reading for 10 seconds and let that sink in.

It’s not just about “no pain, no gain.” Stress actually helps us. It helps us be productive, accomplish more and behappier. It stops us from procrastinating. It forces us to pay attention. It enables us meet deadlines to accomplish our goals. It forces us to do the difficult and uncomfortable things that we would otherwise ignore.

In another Harvard study, participants were asked to think of their stress reactions as helpful: adrenaline raising their energy levels, pounding hearts preparing them for action, fast breathing bringing more oxygen to their brains.

Their cardiac blood vessels actually remained in a relaxed, open state even when their brain was stressed. Their bodies exhibited peak cardiovascular performance, even when their tasks were highly stressful.

Now I know what you're thinking, "it's not so simple Jon!" And that's true, especially for business owners.

Why? Because you’ve spent years, maybe decades, operating in “high stress mode.”

You started a business and had a lot of pressure. Maybe money was tight, you were moving fast, and pushing hard to “make it”. At the time, the pressure was good and necessary.

But, to quote Marshall Goldsmith, “what got you there won’t get you here.”

To truly thrive as a business owner in the long run, you have to push yourself back into the middle of the stress curve.

How? It all in your perception.

See, you may be still operating in the same high stress mode, because it’s what you’re used to, not because you have to.

You need to get a proposal out by tomorrow. Your stress level rises. Stop. Do you reallyhave to? Is that stress real or are you so conditioned to reacting that way? What will happen if you don’t?

Remember my definition of stress?

“When perceived demand exceeds capacity.”

It’s your perception of the activity that’s causing the stress. Not the inherent activity itself.

In Kelly McGonigal's famous TED Talk, “How to make stress your friend,” she quotes studies which claim that people who feel a higher level of stress die more frequently than those who don’t. Shocker.

But she goes on to explain that people who objectively experienced a lot of “stressful” events but didn’t perceive them that way, were no more likely to die.

Ironically, this group had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who objectively had relatively little stress.

Your unique challenge and opportunity as a business owner is to make stress your friend by changing your perception.

What can you do to bring this home?

  1. Determine where you are on your own bell curve. Where is your Thrive Zone? Too much stress is unproductive, but too little stress is ultimately unfulfilling.
  2. Reframe your stressful experiences. Can you view pressure as positive? Visualize your brain getting more oxygen, your heart pumping faster to meet the challenge. What will this stress enable you to do?
  3. Do a brain dump to relieve immediate stressful thoughts. Read more about our Brain Dump Strategies. Deal with what’s “on your mind” in a productive way.

Taking you from where you are to where you want to be.

Jon