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4 ways stress can be good for you

Chronic stress can spike your cortisol, increase your risk of disease and sap your energy. But despite its bad rap, could stress have some health benefits?

Yes, depending on the way you perceive the stress, says Lauren Garvey, MS, CRC, NCC, a counselor and facilitator at Thomas F. Chapman Family Cancer Wellness at Piedmont.

Change the way you view stress

“There is some solid science about our perception of stress and how changing that perception can shift how our body responds to it,” says Garvey. “This is good news because many of the people I meet are stressed and are stressed about being stressed because they are scared of it.”

Garvey says much of the focus on stress these days seems to be around avoiding, controlling and suppressing it, especially when it is labeled as bad or unhealthy.

“It requires a decent amount of energy to perceive that you’re under stress and then try not to be stressed,” she says. “For some types of stress, it can be helpful to embrace it.”

Here are some benefits of stress.

1. Stress can help you face challenges 

A physiological stress response can prepare your body to face challenges and reach your goals. This doesn’t mean you should seek out stressful situations, but that stress from meaningful activities isn’t necessarily harmful.

“When we discuss the harmful effects of stress, we are usually referring to adrenal stress response, which occurs when we believe we do not have the resources to cope with or tackle a challenge,” she explains. “This leads us to fight-or-flight mode.”

Instead of becoming immediately alarmed when you feel a stress response to a situation, try to imagine the situation as challenging instead of stressful and empower yourself to rise to the occasion. A mantra could be: “I am strong and capable of meeting life’s challenges.”

2. Stress shows you what matters most

Stress can help you derive meaning out of life. If something causes you stress, it likely means you care deeply about it.

Many things in life require hard work, thought and energy, such as building a thriving career, volunteering for a cause you care about, nurturing your family and cultivating a healthy marriage. These activities may cause some stress, but they are worth the effort.

“Stress lets us know what we care about and can give us a roadmap to finding more meaning out of life,” says Garvey.

3. Stress can make you more resilient

“Try to go with the flow instead of managing, controlling and suppressing stress,” she says. “I think of stress as waves: If we are bracing against the waves, we will get exhausted. If we learn from stress and listen to it, we can respond in ways that are more adaptive, which leads to resilience.”

4. Stress can help you foster interpersonal connections

“When we view stress as harmful, we are more likely to behave in ways that are less helpful, such as having a drink after work to calm down,” she says. “But research shows viewing stress more positively leads people to seek social support and finding meaning in their challenges.” 

Changing your perception of stress takes practice

Like any skill in life, shifting your perception of stress takes practice.

“Thanks to neuroplasticity, we are capable of creating new connections in the neural networks of our brain to learn and adapt throughout our entire lifespan,” she explains. 

Garvey suggests a daily meditation practice to help you become more in tune with your stress responses and overall internal experience.

“Acknowledge that you have stress and then think about the next step to take, rather than shutting down or avoiding the stress,” she says. “The more we embrace our stress, the more we will be equipped to deal with it when it comes and then move past it.”

Learn more about stress management from Living Better experts.