When most of us think of stress, we rarely think of anything positive.
Instead, we think of frustration, distress, and overwhelm. We think of traffic, debt, sick days, and missed deadlines. We think of clutter, chaos, and catastrophe.
And who wants any of that?
But seeing the negative side of stress doesn’t give us the entire picture. And not surprisingly it only makes life more difficult for us.
According to psychotherapist Judith Belmont, LPC, in her new book Embrace Your Greatness: 50 Ways to Build Unshakable Self-Esteem, “research has shown that if we even think stress is bad for us, we tend to be less stress-resilient, more depressed, more anxious, and less likely to find meaning and challenge in our lives.”
Belmont points out that stress actually isn’t good or bad. Rather, “it just is.”
However, we can harness stress so that it’s helpful and invigorating. “Stress can energize us and help us feel involved and engaged,” Belmont writes. She notes that we can view stress as exciting, motivating, and essential for growth and learning.
In Embrace Your Greatness, Belmont includes an excellent, empowering exercise to help us embrace and transform stress. It features these four steps:
- Imagine stress as a string of an instrument (e.g., a guitar). “If you tighten the string too much, it will snap. If you do not tighten it enough, the sound will drone.” This analogy speaks to finding a balance of stress in our lives. Too much stress can be harmful, and too little stress can leave us feeling lethargic and disengaged.
- Jot down 10 to 20 positive and negative things that you find to be stressful. This could be anything from dealing with a difficult client to watching your child perform in a play to planning a vacation to coping with an illness to receiving a promotion.
- Put a plus sign next to the stressors you consider to be positive. Put a minus sign next to the stressors you consider to be negative. For the minus-sign stressors, think about how you can make them positive. Belmont shares this example: “Having to work with a demanding client is teaching me patience and provides an opportunity to work on my assertiveness skills.”
- Think of other ways you can confront stress and heal from it (versus trying to avoid it and numb yourself). Maybe you share your feelings with someone you trust, and ask them to help and support you. Maybe you reach out to a coach or therapist.
According to Belmont, “It is not stressors themselves that make or break us; rather, it is our thoughts about those life stressors that determine if we are debilitated by them or motivated by them.”
To ensure that a specific stressor motivates you, consider these questions: What can I learn from this? How can this help me to grow? If my loved one were going through this (e.g., a partner, parent, child, best friend), what would I want them to learn? What skill can I learn to better cope with this (and support myself in general)? What small steps can I take to make this into something meaningful? What is exciting, interesting, or thought provoking about this? How can I become a more empathic, compassionate, thoughtful, creative, resilient person after going through this? How might someone I admire perceive this stressor?
We can learn to see stress through a more positive, empowering, supportive lens. We can learn to harness stress. We can learn. And, as we do, we can start to see another truth: We are capable of coping and persevering and overcoming. We are that powerful.