Reframe Your Stress; Reset Your Pressure Gauge

Contrary to popular belief, a little bit of stress isn’t always a bad thing. Here’s how to harness that energy and use it for good.
Published January 30, 2018

Stroll down the self-help aisle of your local bookstore and you’ll see any number of titles that read something like Reduce Stress for Good!, Stop Worrying Now!, or Stress-Free for Life!—but even if you could follow such advice and eliminate stress forever, should you really want to?

The answer, according to some psychologists, is definitely not. In fact, a little bit of anxiety can help boost your performance during certain high-stakes tasks, according to a 2016 study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

“Some stress helps invigorate us,” says Mary Alvord, PhD, an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, DC, and the author of Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens. “It helps sharpen our minds and helps us think clearly.”

“The problem,” she says, “is when we feel overstressed and burdened. When stress becomes chronic, it can cause headaches, stomach pain, and more.”

So how do you harness the anxiety you feel before a big presentation or event and turn it into a positive force?

3 Steps to Make Stress Work for You

1. Channel your energy into excitement

In many cases, there’s a fine line between a challenge and a threat, says Jeremy Jamieson, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in Rochester, NY. If we think we’ll be able to overcome an obstacle, we feel challenged, he explains. If we think we’re going to fail, we feel threatened.

Take, for example, a skier who is staring down a steep, icy mountain. Jamieson says that an athlete who has had years of practice on the slopes might look down the trail and feel excitement. A beginner, on the other hand, might feel more terrified than exhilarated.

Jamieson explains that both the beginner and the advanced skier will experience a jolt to their sympathetic nervous system (the part of the body that increases our heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure), but the avid skier’s heart may work more effectively, whereas the beginner might experience a drop in blood pressure.

Instead of trying to calm yourself down though, some experts advise doing the opposite: Try to pep yourself up. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General found that when people were faced with three potentially embarrassing tasks—a karaoke rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” a public speaking assignment, and a math test—those who were told to “get excited” consistently performed (and felt) better than those who were told to stay calm or to relax.

“At lower levels, stress can be empowering,” says Alvord. “We think, ‘I can do it,’ or ‘I will do it.’ At high levels, on the other hand, we tend to think, ‘I can’t do it,’ or, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ It becomes more about avoidance than acceptance.”

2. Take control of the situation

If you’re facing down a seemingly insurmountable obstacle—say, you’re up against a deadline or are preparing for a big presentation at work—take a step back and start strategizing.

 “Maybe you have to break the assignment into smaller pieces or put more time into it,” Alvord says. “Whatever it is, think back to the times when you’ve completed a similar task and remind yourself that you’ve done it before and can do it now.”

“When we think ‘I’ve done it before,’” she says, “We get a visual image of [success] in our minds, which is very empowering.”

Fake it until you make it, indeed.

3. Be irrepressible

Inevitably, says Alvord, bad things happen to everyone. We can’t deny the stress that occurs after, for example, the death of a parent, or the loss of a job, or the foreclosure of a house. But, says Alvord, we can be resilient and refuse to see ourselves as a victim of our circumstances.

“Even in the worst-case scenarios—for example, you’re losing your job—there’s always something you can do about it,” she says. “You should tell yourself, ‘I can always find another job. It might take me a while, but I can do it.’”

Above all, she says, it’s important not to “catastrophize”—that is, don’t dwell on the doomsday scenario that you believe is lurking around every corner.

“People who are optimistic are more resilient,” she says. “That doesn’t mean denying the bad stuff—it means that you can see the good in the future despite the bad stuff.”

Ultimately, stress can make you stronger, and the three steps here will help you regulate your pressure gauge.