In this month’s blog, we’re joined by Habit Disruption Founder Kevin Munhall, a functional breathing and stress resilience coach and consultant to tell us about the ways we can use stress as a way to fuel us.
If you have ever:
- Competed at game night
- Watched horror movies
- Ridden a roller coaster
- Played Mario Cart
- Watched playoff football
- Gone to spin class
- Jumped out of airplane
- Did an escape room
…then you have stressed yourself out on purpose. For fun.
To be clear, these activities did create a stress response in your body–your pulse raced, your breath quickened and adrenaline pumped through your veins–and yet you probably didn’t assume any of those things would make you sick or give you long-term health problems.
"These sensations and physical stress responses are nearly identical and yet it’s easy to put a negative narrative on the “nerves” and a positive narrative on the “thrill.” "
Why is that? Isn’t stress supposed to be the silent killer?
1. You embraced the sensation of stress
When you feel your heart race in a haunted house, you don’t question why it’s racing, you actually lean into the sensation and enjoy it. The stress response feels like a normal reaction to the thrill of the activity and it can be exciting to be so amped up and full of adrenaline. It can help you feel alive.
Compare that to the experience of feeling your heart race when nerves hit before an important meeting. Do you embrace that feeling then? Do you enjoy the adrenaline pulsing through you, or view it as a sign that something will go wrong?
These sensations and physical stress responses are nearly identical and yet it’s easy to put a negative narrative on the “nerves” and a positive narrative on the “thrill.”
It’s in this tiny mental framing where stress can move from healthy to unhealthy.
2. You do not suppress, or ruminate on “fun” stress.
When a stress response hits you and you think it shouldn’t be there, most people spend a lot of mental focus and energy trying to make it go away. And unfortunately, unless you are exceptional at breathwork or mindfulness reframing, this doesn’t work very well and typically leads to more tension.
You can actually stress yourself out trying to stop being stressed.
Think about the haunted house again—when you allow your stress response to be big and powerful, and you embrace the sensation, your nervous system typically finds a way to come back to equilibrium faster. You can almost feel high coming down from the experience.
“In a fully functional organism, an emotion has a very short life span. It is like a momentary ripple or wave on the surface of your being.”
By contrast, when you try to dampen down the sensations and never fully experience the stress, it can prolong it and lead to hours, or days of rumination.
So what do you do about it? Start small.
The next time you notice a wave of stress coming your way at work, take a moment to notice the sensation before you try to change it or get upset that you’re stressed.
- Where do you notice it in your body?
- What is the sensation?
- How is it changing your breathing?
Once you’ve done that, open up the possibility that this stress response could actually be trying to help you rather than harm you. Rather than viewing your body’s stress response as an impediment to success, acknowledge that the response can actually fuel you for the challenge.
This isn’t just magic “positive thinking” woo-woo. This type of mindset shift is what researchers call a “challenge response.” When we are able to view our own stress response as beneficial, it actually shifts how our physiology responds. Your blood vessels stay dilated, much like during exercise, and there are different ratios of stress hormones released when you have a “challenge response,” which can help prevent negative outcomes, like heart attacks and premature death.
Multiple studies indicate that people who are able to view stress more like a challenge and less like a threat report less anxiety and depression, higher levels of energy, better performance, and greater overall life satisfaction.
So the next time your pulse starts to race before a meeting, don’t panic. Simply pause, notice and act with the confidence that your body has provided the energy and focus to handle the challenge at hand.