6 Psychologist-Approved Ways To Use Your Stress To Your Advantage 

Contributing writers By Steven J. Stein, Ph.D. & Paul T. Bartone, Ph.D.
Contributing writers
Steven J. Stein, Ph.D., & Paul T. Bartone, Ph.D. are co-authors of the book, "Hardiness." Stein is a clinical psychologist and the founder and executive chair of Multi-Health Systems (MHS), and Bartone is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Policy, National Defense University.
6 Psychologist-Approved Ways To Use Your Stress To Your Advantage

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How you think about stress matters enormously in terms of how you process it. Some people see stress as a threat while others are able to view it as a challenge. With a challenge response, you get additional energy, your heart rate rises, and your adrenaline goes up, but it differs in a few important ways from fight-or-flight:

  • You feel focused instead of fearful.
  • You release a different ratio of stress hormones.
  • You are more easily able to access your mental and physical resources.

The result is enhanced concentration, confidence, and peak performance. In fact, people who are able to think about stress more like a challenge and less like a threat report lower depression and anxiety, higher levels of energy, better work performance, and increased life satisfaction. People high in challenge tend to take changes in stride, see variety as part of the richness of life, and are optimistic about the future. On the opposite pole, people low in challenge are always seeking security, want everything to be simple and predictable, and are fearful of the future.

Considering this, you might want to shift your focus on the challenges and stress in your life. Here's how:

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1. Think of challenges not as setbacks but as opportunities to learn.

It's sometimes hard to believe the number of famous people who went through serious hardships before they became successful in our eyes. We all have setbacks growing up, and some of us deal with them better than others. Here's a success story that you may not have been aware of:

Oprah Winfrey is one of the most successful and richest people in the world today. She is also among the most admired women in America (possibly in the world). Oprah is a successful entrepreneur and reportedly has a net worth of $2.8 billion. But she didn't grow up privileged. Far from it.

She was born in poverty in rural Mississippi and was raised by a teenage single mother. She later moved to inner-city Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She reported that she was sexually molested during her childhood and teenage years and became pregnant at 14 years of age. Her son was born prematurely and died during infancy.

Fortunately, Oprah had strong inner resources. She excelled as an honors student in high school. She won an oratory contest, which landed her a scholarship to college. And clearly, she had a strong sense of challenge that enabled her to overcome many of the obstacles in her life.

2. Do not live every day by a rigid schedule.

How do you start your day? How much of your day is planned out? Do you allow for flex time in your schedule?

We all have schedules in our lives, and these are necessary and useful. We have our favorite routines and activities and places we like to go. But over-relying on schedules and routines can lead to a kind of mental rigidity that can be counterproductive. In an environment that changes a lot, we need to be flexible and willing to try new things in order to adapt successfully.

Daily schedules that are too fixed can hamper your creativity and adaptability. Build your sense of challenge by allowing yourself the freedom to do things differently from time to time.

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3. Be willing to change your plans to meet changing conditions.

Today's world is all about change. Yet, for some people change is difficult. Some changes are relatively small, like using a different toothpaste. Other changes can be rather large, like changing your career or even your home. How you handle change may be dependent on the nature of the change, as well as on your personality characteristics or mindset.

Think about some of the most recent changes you have made in your life. How comfortable have you been with those changes? Do you find that some changes seem easier than others?

Life is full of plans. We make plans every day—from what to have for lunch, to how to spend our leisure time. Sometimes plans change. Some changes are easier than others. Our ability to change, adapt to life's curves or even roadblocks, helps determine our success in life. To a large extent, life is about change and our ability to adapt. Stay behind and you miss many of life's opportunities.

4. Whenever you fail at something, ask: What can I learn from this?

Who can say they never failed at something? The ability to learn from failures is what sets apart the people who succeed from those who struggle. There are many examples of people who started with failure and went on to experience great success.

One of the most famous examples of learning from failure was Thomas Edison and the invention of the light bulb. While he also invented the phonograph, carbon telephone transmitter, electric power distribution, fluoroscopy, motion picture kinetoscope, and many other devices, the light bulb comes first to most people's minds.

Nobody really knows how many attempts Edison made in trying to invent the light bulb, but the numbers range from between 1,000 and 10,000 attempts. Think of his quote: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work."

In Edison, we're looking at the elements of challenge. We see him continuing to try even when he fails. He learns from his failures. Finally, he redefines failure as looking at things differently—"10,000 ways that don't work."

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5. Try out new things; take reasonable risks.

When is the last time you tried something new? Have you been to a new restaurant, tried some new type of food, visited a new place, listened to a new type of music, taken on a new task at work, gone somewhere where you knew nobody? We have countless opportunities in our lives to try new things. Trying something new and getting out of our comfort zone is a great way to build a challenge mindset.

For most people the natural inclination is to keep things the same, don't rock the boat, and play it safe. Change can create anxiety and discomfort. It's easier to keep doing what you've always done and avoid taking risks. But sometimes it's the change and discomfort that goes along with it that help us grow and develop new skills.

Try for experiences that allow you to develop your social skills, build your self-efficacy, and provide something that will challenge you along the way.

6. Do not dwell on past disappointments: Learn, forgive, and look ahead.

How often have things not worked out for you and you couldn't get it out of your mind? You would ruminate about it, ask "what if?" again and again. Reliving the past does not change the past. At some point you will need to move on with life. People high in a challenge mindset learn from disappointments and move on. Part of the mindset is to look at the past as a learning experience. Changing the way we look at events can lead to major changes both psychological and physical.

One of the more difficult things for many people is forgiveness. It takes a lot of energy to be angry at people for transgressions of one sort or another. We don't stop and think of the costs of our own holding on to anger or resentment.

You should look to the future, and don't dwell on past mistakes or transgressions. Yes, you should learn from failures, but take that learning forward. Don't hold grudges. Let go of your past resentments and forgive others. There is no upside to harboring anger. It only hurts you. Besides, letting it go will be good for both your mental and physical health.

Your challenges are about learning from the past, looking forward, taking calculated risks, and making changes. That way, you can take any stress you may have and learn to take action, evaluate, pivot when necessary, and keep moving.

Excerpted from Hardiness by Steven J. Stein, Ph.D. & Paul T. Bartone, Ph.D. Reprinted with permission from Wiley, 2019.

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