There are certain things you know for certain.
Like stress is unhealthy. You should do everything you can to eliminate it. You’ll live longer.
Since you’re probably like me and haven’t achieved a Zen-like alternative state and eradicated all forms of stress from your daily existence, it keeps showing up.
Sometimes you can’t help yourself. 🤨
But is it always harmful?
What if you could control it? Maybe channel it?
The stress response is normal. Don’t beat yourself up. Your heart beats faster. Your breath gets short. Butterflies in your stomach turn into jet fighters on a mission. Some industrial-strength acid gets released and is doing God-knows-what to your insides.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
It turns out there is good stress and bad stress. Eustress and distress.
Once you understand the difference, you can use one to heighten your productivity and performance. The other? You can avoid, mitigate or manage.
I first read about good stress and bad stress in Tim Ferriss’s book, The 4-Hour Workweek. Good stress? Called Eustress? Hmmmm.
Although it got my attention, I set it aside.
Then I watched a TED Talk (after 20 million other people had already viewed it) and Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and the author of The Upside of Stress, shared how your perspective about stress impacts the effects it has on you.
You want to lead a meaningful life? You want to be a great leader? Then I’ve got some good news and bad news for you.
When it comes to stress, your mindset matters. A lot.
You have more control than you might think. But it’s up to you.
Eu See Stress in the Shadows
Stress is created when something we care about is at stake. The outcome of a negotiation. The results of a test. A first date. A job interview.
The stress response worked when we were threatened by an animal in the wild and our fight or flight mode kicked in. In a matter of minutes, we either escaped — and stress left our body — or we were eaten. But in the modern world we get stressed over relationships, or meetings, or a conversation, and we stay in a stressed state.
Prolonged periods of stress can lead to compromised immunity, poor sleep quality, food cravings, and increases in heart rate, blood pressure and inflammation. It can lead to anxiety, depression and illness.
This stress is distress. But only when we perceive it in that manner.
We’re afraid the negotiation may not work out in our favor.
We worry he / she won’t like us on the first date and we fear rejection.
We worry the job interview won’t go well and we won’t get hired.
Nothing has happened yet, but it’s playing in our minds. Worry. Fear of the downside.
Sometimes we get torqued up about potential outcomes or consequences THAT NEVER HAPPEN. It wastes energy. It wastes time. And yet staying in that stressed state can negatively impact our health and our performance.
You can attempt to reduce your stress in the moment by shutting your eyes, controlling your breathing and getting in a meditative state. Even for a few minutes, you can sometimes feel the stress begin to leave your body.
Or you can change your mindset.
Eu WILL Have Stress
If you want to lead people, achieve significant goals and live a full life, stress will accompany you on your journey. It goes with the territory. It creates a paradox you need to understand — and embrace.
“Higher levels of stress seem to go along with things we want: love, health, and satisfaction with our lives,” McGonigal wrote in The Upside of Stress. “The best way to understand the stress paradox is to look at the relationship between stress and meaning. It turns out that a meaningful life is also a stressful life.”
You can play it safe and avoid stress at all costs. And only pursue easily attainable goals. Not stretch your mind or body beyond your current capacity.
Well, you’ve just relegated yourself to a dull, monotonous future. Good luck.
No, whether it is learning, exercise, or professional achievement, the greatest growth occurs when we stretch ourselves. Out of our current levels of performance. Out of our comfort zones.
The pursuit of the greatest performance, the deepest relationships and the most meaningful lives — will be accompanied by stress. Unforeseen challenges. Resistance by others. Dealing with change.
I hope you’re pursuing your life and career to create meaning driven by a powerful purpose.
Marcus is Talking to Eu…and so is Kelly
In her TED talk, Kelly McGonigle refers to a 1998 study where researchers asked thirty thousand adults if they had experienced stress in the last year and whether they believed stress was harmful to their health. Eight years later, the researchers determined that those respondents who felt stress was harming their health had a 43% greater risk of dying. But for the respondents who had experienced higher levels of stress, but believed it was not harmful to their health, they actually had the lowest risk of death than anyone in the study — including those who said they had little stress in their lives!
The stress itself wasn’t harmful. It was the belief it was harmful that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The power of the human brain. The anti-placebo effect.
How you think about stress matters. To your performance. To your health.
We can’t control all the variables in life or in any particular situation. We can’t control the events that happen around us. But we can control our perception of them.
“You have the power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” — Marcus Aurelius
Consider which direction your mind goes when faced with adversity. Will this challenge stop me or allow me to learn? Will this obstacle prevent me from proceeding or test my creativity or my endurance?
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. — Viktor Frankl
Eu Should Embrace the Eustress
Hans Selye coined the term eustress, using the Greek prefix “eu” comes from the Greek for good.
Ryan Holiday, Darius Foroux and other proponents of the Stoic philosophy espouse the idea that eustress is the appropriate way to view obstacles.
In his book The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday suggests that “Obstacles are not only to be expected but embraced. Embraced? Yes, because these obstacles are actually opportunities to test ourselves, to try new things, and, ultimately, to triumph.”
The greatest performances don’t occur in practice. They occur in the game. On the stage. In the battle.
When your pulse begins to race and you start to feel the butterflies before the speech, the presentation, the negotiation. That’s a good thing. That’s energy. Use it to your benefit. If you’re not challenged, you’re likely to be bored and your effort and concentration aren’t there. Too much stress and you’re a deer-in-the-headlights. You’re paralyzed with fear.
But having a little edge? Some nerves? A bit of anxious energy?
That feeling allows you to be alert, focused, creative, motivated and energized. Sometimes when we’re in that state, we come up with an idea or strategy and as soon as we say it we think, “That was brilliant! Where did that come from?”
Eu Can See the Benefits
Accepting challenges and overcoming obstacles creates numerous psychological and physical benefits. But let’s face it, you’re not going to overcome every obstacle every time. Not if you’re swinging for the fences and acting like a leader. A person on a mission to lead a life of meaning.
But the effort, and getting some wins along the way, helps you to:
● Accelerate learning
● Take on bigger challenges in the future
● Build grit
● Develops resilience
● Improves health
● SETS A GREAT EXAMPLE FOR OTHERS ON YOUR TEAM
Actions Eu Can Take
I recommend that you challenge yourself daily as part of your morning routine. It takes no extra time, but gives you psychological edge. You’ve started your day accepting challenges and getting small wins.
Two practices that I repeat daily are:
Spending at least one minute in the shower with the water as cold as I can get it. The fact that it wakes me up like nothing else is an added bonus. I did battle with the cold water and I won.
I brush my teeth with my opposite hand while standing on one foot. I feel uncoordinated and occasionally fall against the wall. But according to brain guru Jim Kwik, the opposite hand fires a different part of your brain because you can’t do it out of habit like you have the previous ten thousand days. It makes you more creative the rest of the day. True or not, I’m taking Jim’s word for it, so I THINK I’m going to be more creative the rest of the day.
Doing it on one foot builds balance. I do that every day for the next thirty years and I’ll be chasing my great grandchildren in the backyard. I’ll post the pictures on social media.
For a more relevant and professional approach, Kelly McGonigle outlines a three-step process for developing a new mindset related to stress.
- Acknowledge stress when you feel it. It may require you to meditate for several minutes to notice what you’re feeling in your body. Not all stress hits you over the head with a sledgehammer. Check out your breathing, your heartbeat, a sense of anxiousness.
- Welcome the feeling of stress because it signifies that it’s a response to something you care deeply about. Why does this matter to you? Can you connect a positive motivation to this sense of stress?
- Instead of taking time trying to manage the stress, use the energy to take action. Think of what you can do that is aligned with your goals / desired outcome — and then take action!
Eu Can Make This Your Superpower
Stress is a reality.
When it comes in the form of distress, and we don’t handle it properly, it can have a negative effect on our performance and our health.
When we try to avoid it completely, we pursue a route of safety and unfortunately, insignificance.
If we don’t control it and assume it will harm us, we stand a good chance of making that come true.
When we try to be a great leader and pursue a life of meaning and significance, stress will find us. How we respond is critically important.
If it is going to occur anyway, embrace that fact and use it to your advantage. To energize you and your team. To harness its creativity. To build resilience and to learn.
Which allows you to grow.
Which leads to improvement.
Which accomplishes goals.
Meaningful goals. Success as a leader.
Eu can do this!