According to Dr. Kelly McGonigal: stress is most likely to be harmful when the following conditions are present: it feels against your will, out of your control and utterly devoid of meaning. If you can change any of these conditions – by finding some meaning in it – you can reduce the harmful effects of stress.
Meaning without Stress?
In 2013, researchers from Stanford and Florida State University conducted a survey of adults aged 18-78 about whether or not their lives felt meaningful. In the study, stress emerged as a key component to those who felt their lives had the most meaning. These results corroborated an extensive Gallup World poll with the same surprising findings.
So, apparently stress without meaning can be harmful to your health, but meaning without stress is a bit of a rare occurrence.
The same things that create meaning in our lives, can also create stress
While this sounds paradoxical, just look for the nearest parent of a toddler or teenager who is ready to pull their own hair out. While the first 18 years of parenthood are bound to stress them out on more than one occasion, the experience of being a parent is something that has brought a significant amount of meaning into their lives.
The same paradox shows up in goals we set for ourselves. We might joke about #vacationgoals, but our big audacious life goals rarely consist of relaxing on the beach with an umbrella drink. My most rewarding goals, the ones I’ve grown the most from, are the ones that stretched me well beyond my comfort zone.
Stress can be an impetus to significant growth
Built into the biology of the stress response, is our ability to learn from an experience. When the body is stressed, it releases a hormone called DHEA. This hormone helps your brain become more resilient to future stress by increasing the neuroplasticity of your brain (which also helps you learn from the experience). If you use your mindful awareness and choose to see a stressful situation as an opportunity to grow, your body can actually release more resilience-boosting DHEA than if you choose to see every stressor as something you are a victim of.
Grow for it!
We can’t eradicate all stressors in our lives. And the research studies on what bring us the most meaning in our lives would indicate that we actually wouldn’t want to. What we can do, however, is to take a different perspective on a tough situation and view it through the lens of learning and growth.
Last year we added a set of Grit & the Growth Mindset lessons to our Mindful Life Schools program, but this mindset reboot should be taught to adults, too. The growth mindset is the belief that skills and intelligence are developed through effort. It’s about stretching yourself to learn or accomplish something new. It’s taking the view that failure is just a setback and can be a catalyst for learning, provided you either try harder or try a different strategy. According to the growth mindset, effort and persistence (rather than skating through life on Easy Street!) are what contribute the most to life success.
Applying the growth mindset to stress isn’t to say that you need to find the silver lining or the deep soul-searching lesson in every aggravation. Some of those are just opportunities to practice patience, mindful breathing or a different stress response. But if something much more meaningful to you is stressing you out in a big way, you can also choose to look at it as an opportunity for growth.
Here’s how …
1) Reflect on your strengths
If you’re in the midst of a stressful situation, think back on what strengths you used in the past to overcome something difficult. What strengths could you use in your current situation? How did that previous experience make you stronger? How much stronger will you be in the future because of this experience?
2) Rewrite your story
If there’s a stressor in your past that has been filed under things you’d never like to go through, again, can you re-tell your story in a redemptive way that highlights the growth and healing of it all? Can you talk about what you learned, what strengths you drew on and how you grew despite difficult circumstances?
In an upside of adversity study, researchers found that with just a two-minute redemptive narrative intervention, participants showed less physical tension, reported less anger, increased joy and a greater sense of control. They also had better cardiovascular responses, indicative of the tend and befriend response. The comparison group who re-told their experience without finding an upside, in contrast, only exhibited distressing signs of a typical threat response.
3) Don’t gloss over the pain
Finding the growth in a situation does not mean glossing over the pain. This is not an invitation to plaster a smile on your face and point out that the glass is half full when you or someone else is in their darkest hour. We aren’t looking for the diet version of hardship. The biggest benefits are experienced when you can give yourself permission to be human, mindfully sit with whatever pain is also present and find some of the good or areas of potential growth.
A friend of mine has an acronym that she and her closest friends refer to whenever a particularly hairy situation is happening in their lives. They call it an AFGO … which stands for Another Freakin (or swap out a different f-word) Growth Opportunity. This is a tragicomedy reframe that helps her acknowledge the pain while reminding her that she will grow, eventually, if she chooses to.
She’s had plenty of AFGOs in her life: struggles with infertility, supporting loved ones through addiction, alcoholism, and relapse, business deals gone bad, a lawsuit, health scares, financial losses, the list goes on.
With some of these situations, she was able to access the growth quickly, with others it took much more time. But, when adversity arises, the person she is now is much different (and much more capable and resilient) than the person she was when she went head-to-head with her first crisis.
Although she wouldn’t jump at the chance to relive each experience again, she also has told me that she wouldn’t want to sanitize her past of any of these experiences either. The self-transformation, self-efficacy, the bigger coping toolbox, the strengths she developed, the relationship healing that occurred, the resilience, the increased appreciation of life and the massive shifts she made in her overall life were all because the freakin’ growth ended up far outweighing the freakin’ stress.
As Victor Frankl so wisely said almost 60 years ago, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”