In a previous column, I wrote about Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s book “The Upside of Stress.” She makes the case that changing our mindset about stress can help us tap into the benefits that stress can offer.
It’s not a conventional take, but as I ask my clients, “How is trying to manage stress working for you?”, the usual advice for managing stress seems almost laughable when you are dealing with work, family responsibilities, and chronic illness. Avoid stressful situations, like calls to my insurance company? Find ways to relax — while I’m in constant pain? It is easy to dismiss this kind of advice, but Dr. McGonigal’s words can also feel challenging. Accept stress and practice a new way of thinking about it.
My client Ron laughed out loud when I suggested we find some ways to work on this. Ron was newly diagnosed, and was dealing with the trauma of shifting his identity from hard driving young business man into including a diagnosis of RA that left him exhausted and weak. His apartment stairs felt like an overwhelming challenge. Ron wasn’t depressed, but he was overwhelmed and deeply frustrated.
“This idea might work for someone who is stressed by their commute or their cat getting sick, but for real stress — like my diagnosis — I can’t see it helping.”
It seemed like a valid point, but I was looking for something that might give him some relief.
We did the first step, noticing his belief about stress, and he was surprised to discover how many negative thoughts he had. “Wow, I didn’t realize how much I complain about things. I call everything that happens to me stressful.”
Once Ron noticed his inner commentary, he was willing to experiment with the next step. Not everything works or is a good fit for everyone, I reminded him. Let’s look at this as a game and see where it takes you.
The first part — noticing the when he felt stressed — allowed Ron to take a moment and ponder what the stress was really about. When he felt stress about not getting to work on time, he realized it was because he really cares about his job, and was a little concerned that he might not be able to keep it. A conversation with his HR department and his boss helped reassure him that he was still very much needed and wanted. Stress about the stairs to his apartment was related to how much he loved his home, and worry about if he could stay there long term.
Every connection Ron made between feeling stressed and what he found meaningful helped him see that the stress experience was a signal about how much he cared about his life. He began to focus on that caring — and it began to shift his thinking from the complaining and worry to some gratitude.
“You’re right — this approach wouldn’t work for everyone — but it is a good fit for me,” Ron admitted. “I like thinking things through, and I appreciate turning my experience of stress into a way to see how I do have the resources to cope!”
That’s the final part of McGonigal’s strategy. First you notice, then you begin to accept the stress as a connection to something you care about, and finally you use the experience of stress as a pointer to your ability to cope, a reminder of your resources, and a frame for your strengths.
I’ll be interested in how this may help you. Again, just experiment with your mindset and see if you notice a difference.