When I met Kelli Clay a few months ago at a conference and she said she helps people train their brains to stress less, I and everyone at our table sat up and said, “Yes, please!”
And after hearing her talk about her process over lunch, I knew she’d make a great guest blogger. As I’ve mentioned here before, I think there is a different kind of stress that results from social impact work. There’s all the “usual” stress that comes with running a business—or heck, even working at one—but the stakes are higher when you not only have your customers sand donors to think about, but those who benefit from your work as well. It can be a lot of pressure to juggle that triple bottom line.
If your chest got a little tighter at that thought, keep reading. Give Kelli’s exercise below a try and see if you can lower your stress at work to thrive in what you do.
Would you like to have a stress-free life?
When I ask this question during a presentation or workshop, everyone nods an emphatic yes. Today, I’d like to challenge that desire.
Benefits of Stress
Yes, you read that right. Stress has more to offer us than we might imagine.
First, stress saves lives. That is the purpose of the stress response in our bodies. If a rabid dog is chasing me, I want to be able to run fast, and if the dog catches me, I want my immune system to kick in, and my blood to clot so that I don’t bleed to death. The stress response provides those results.
“Okay,” you say, “but how often am I chased by a rabid dog? How is stress helpful in my everyday life?”
That question leads to the second benefit which is motivation. When I was teaching college classes I would ask my students, “Would you study this material if you didn’t have the stress of an exam looming?” Even my best students said they would not study without that motivator.
The third benefit is the energy that the stress response delivers. In addition to motivation, my students experienced a spike in energy that could be applied to learning when they felt tired.
Now you might say, “That is all well and good, but there is no way those benefits outweigh the detriments of stress, especially its impact on my health.” This is where the best news of all comes in: Recent research shows us that stress comes in different forms.
Different Types of Stress
In her book, The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal writes about two different types of stress response: the “threat response” and the “challenge response.” Dr. McGonigal teaches us that when we perceive stress as a challenge instead of a threat, our bodies respond in a healthy fashion, similar to the way our bodies respond to exercise.
For example, in a threat response, our blood vessels become narrower, but in a challenge response they stay wide open, allowing lots of oxygen to reach cells for a boost in energy.
The key to moving our bodies from a threat response to a challenge response is to use our brains differently.
The more “primitive” parts of our brain (such as the limbic system) are wired to initiate the threat response to keep us safe. In order to initiate a challenge response, we have to use the parts of our brain more developed in humans (such as the prefrontal cortex). To do that, we need to change the way we perceive what is triggering the stress.
Consider the way a skillful athlete uses her stress response to improve her performance. Before she starts her tennis match you can see her breathing deeply, moving about, and focusing her mind. She is not thinking about how stressed she is. She is using the energy surging through her body by thinking about how she will rise to the challenge, hit the ball hard, and make the best shots.
We can use that same process in everyday life.
For example, when I am preparing for a presentation, I acknowledge that my body is having a stress response, but instead of fretting about being stressed I tell myself that my body is gearing up, and I am capable and can handle the challenge. I build on my past success and tell myself I’ve done this before with great results. Then, I tell myself that I am excited, and this will be fun. Last, I notice that excited feeling in my body.
My exact words may not work for you, so it is beneficial to come up with your own mantras to create a new perception.
Here are the steps I recommend to retrain your brain when it comes to stress:
Acknowledge the response your body is having such as:
the faster heart rate,
the sweaty palms, or
the butterflies in your belly.
Reassure yourself that this is normal. Examples statements are:
This is my primitive brain trying to protect me, but I’m not in danger.
I am fine. This is just my body’s natural response to the challenge ahead.
Encourage yourself. For example:
Think about a success you’ve had and recognize that if you could do that, you can accomplish the task ahead of you.
You might repeat something like, “I know I can handle this.”
Choose a new positive, high-energy emotion such as:
Invoke the new emotion you chose by:
creating and repeating sentences that support the new emotion, or
visualizing yourself responding to the situation with the new emotion.
Notice your body’s response to the new emotion. If your heart is pumping fast now, it is because you are thrilled, not because you are scared.
Jack’s Success with the Challenge Response
I worked with a man in his mid-50’s that we will call Jack, whose company was being sold. He was a manager, had been with the company for 20 years, and his family depended on his salary. Jack was having trouble sleeping and he faced each day with a tight chest. He was concerned about his future and the future of his employees.
At first, Jack was skeptical. He thought this method was too simple and wouldn’t make a difference, but he agreed to try it. Every time he felt his heart racing and his chest getting tight, he would stop for a moment and notice those sensations in his body.
When he did, the symptoms decreased.
Then he reassured himself that his response was normal because he cared about what happened to his family and employees. He reviewed the problems he had overcome in his lifetime and decided he could handle this new situation.
Next, Jack decided he wanted to feel courageous and enthused for whatever came. To invoke those emotions, he stood up straighter and visualized himself walking into the office tall and strong. He repeated to himself, “The reason a company might want to buy us is because we made this company great. I have strong skills, and if we are bought, I will use those skills to support the new company, or possibly in a new position somewhere else.” He encouraged his employees in the same way.
A few weeks later, Jack was surprised to realize that he felt a calm excitement for whatever came next.
Jack’s situation has not changed. His company is still up for sale and he does not know what will happen, but he goes to work each day with enthusiasm and a sense of adventure.
You Can Do It
As simple as this sounds, it is not always easy. You have to practice it until you develop the new, neural pathways in your brain that make it easier, just like learning to ride a bike.
Don’t give up, thinking that this will never work.
There is solid science to back this exercise. Watch Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk to learn more. It has worked for me, my students, and clients—and I know it will work for you!
Instead of “stress-free,” embrace the challenge response and you can “stress less!”
Kelli Clay teaches people how to deal with stress through her signature program, "Train Your Brain to Stress Less and Thrive." It is more efficient and less time-consuming than traditional stress management, so if you need help managing the stress in your life, she offers a free telephone discovery session. And if you want quick, practical tips for stressing less, subscribe to her twice-a-month newsletter.
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I’m Kristi Porter, and I help cause-focused organizations understand and execute effective marketing campaigns so they can move from stressed to strategic. Your resources may be limited, but your potential isn’t. Whether you’re a nonprofit, social enterprise, or small business who wants to give back, I’ll show you how to have a bigger impact.