The way we perceive the world is endlessly fascinating. If we think things are terrible, we’ll have a terrible time. Even if things are objectively terrible, though, the mind can make them wonderful through the power of belief.
There’s an old Zen fable about this. A young monk is locked in a dark room and told there is a snake in the corner. He can vaguely make out the shape of the snake, which is coiled motionlessly as if about to strike.
The young monk cowers in fear, waiting for the kiss of death at any moment. Finally, the older monks return and turn on the light. In the corner is a pile of rope — the snake was just a figment of his fearful imagination.
What if stress is the same way? Recent research indicates that it’s actually our relationship with stress, not stress itself, that causes anxiety, overwork, and all the other hallmarks of the stressed-out lifestyle. Let’s explore further.
What is stress?
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, stress is “how the brain and body respond to any demand.” This is in keeping with the general definition of stress, which is the pressure exerted on an object or system.
In this case, the “object” is your human body and mind, and the “pressure” is any demand made of you throughout a given day. While autonomic by default, even breathing is inherently stressful on the body, and the process of dealing with this stress and maintaining balance is called homeostasis.
Already, you’re starting to see that the big, bad Stress Monster might not be as hideous as you initially expected. It’s really true that stress is trying to be your friend — the two of you are just having a little trouble communicating.
How do you deal with stress?
People generally deal with stress by engaging in activities that aren’t stressful. To a degree, this is the correct approach — we need to balance the time we spend working with equal time spent resting, but just avoiding stress isn’t a holistic approach to the problem.
You also need to confront stress head-on to realize its true nature. To get there, it’s necessary to (1) carefully and methodically unpack what stress means to you, (2) determine how this personal definition fits into your past trauma and fears of the future, and (3) generally perform a deep dive of the psyche that, while initially uncomfortable, will yield great rewards.
Let’s get started. How do you make stress your friend?
1. Stop fearing stress
In The Art of War, ancient Chinese warfare sage Sun Tzu advises us to keep our friends close but our enemies closer. This isn’t so our enemies can more easily stab us in the back once our guard is down. It’s so that we can keep them on short leashes before they unleash mayhem without our knowledge.
Stress might be your enemy right now — we’ll deal with that later. All you need to do in this current moment is stop fearing stress as some vague enemy on the horizon and instead welcome it into your camp under your watchful eye.
As long as stress is somewhere out there waiting to strike, you’ll constantly be waiting for the hammer-blow to fall. Even when you aren’t feeling particularly stressed, you’ll be stressed about the prospect of becoming stressed — all of which can be avoided simply by being less squeamish and standoffish toward stress in the first place.
Your stress isn’t going anywhere. Learn to live with it, and never let it out of your sight.
2. Self-administer a stress test
Maybe you live in a college town and can apply to be a clinical study participant. For most of us, however, it will be necessary to approximate the academic rigor of a university stress test in our own homes.
In clinical settings, social stress tests usually involve sitting or standing in front of bright lights and explaining the details of your personal weaknesses while receiving negative feedback from a panel. If this sounds a lot like a classic roast, you aren’t wrong, but it tests the strength of an individual’s ego for scientific reasons — not entertainment.
This test can be approximated at home by standing in front of your bathroom sink with the lights on and talking to your reflection about your deepest fears. If you have a FitBit, Apple Watch, or similar device, track your heart rate to detect signs of fear or anxiety.
Next, start with the number 996, and start counting down in increments of seven as fast as you can. That heart rate monitor is probably exploding right now.
Keep administering these simple stress tests throughout your journey of self-discovery. Whichever metrics you end up using, we think you’ll naturally improve over time.
3. Recognize how stress can be useful
Stress isn’t a negative thing. It’s stress that allows your muscles to erect your body off the ground each morning. It’s stress that tells you to take care of important tasks vital to your survival.
In reality, stress is already your best friend — you just don’t know it yet. Let’s list a few of the ways stress can be useful to prove our point:
— It prepares you to meet challenges —
Without stress, you’d be a spineless, boneless lump of clay. Stress is absolutely essential for meeting the challenges life brings us every day. Embrace stress as a tool and an unavoidable fact of life — not a burden or a source of despair.
— It incentivizes you to give back —
Did you know that studies show stress is relieved when you give more to others? It turns out that compassion is one of the best relievers of stress. Best of all, compassion doesn’t just temporarily alleviate the symptoms of stress, it combats the ultimate core of all our stress — self-centeredness.
— It promotes production of oxytocin —
Stress does at least one really good thing at the neurochemical level: It triggers the production of oxytocin, an essential neurotransmitter that facilitates the feeling of interpersonal connection. Use stress as a springboard into the hearts of those around you.
4. Use stress to connect with others
It’s interesting to take a really deep look at the origins of stress. Science tells us that focusing on others and being compassionate eliminates stress at its roots, but why?
Well, what is the experience we call “stress” anyway? In the end, isn’t this just a placeholder word for fear, the experience of being debilitated by the potential of a future event?
Stress, from a scientific viewpoint, is simply the burden an individual must bear to survive and thrive in the world. Isn’t it interesting that this burden is alleviated most when we help others, not when we focus solely on ourselves?
Even if we organize our lives entirely in service to ourselves, we will still be burdened with stress. Those less capable of focusing solely on themselves or less willing to do so must band together to survive, and in their bonds, they find the secret key to overcoming stress: togetherness.