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Making stress work for you

Positive mindset: Paul Loftus pictured with Kelly McGonigal at the ATD conference in Atlanta (Photograph supplied)

Stress can be good for us — if we adopt a positive attitude towards it.

That is the view of Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist, management lecturer and award-winning author, who was speaking at a major human resources conference in Atlanta.

Dr McGonigal, whose books include The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to get Good at it, gave a talk with the same title at the Association of Talent Development annual conference in Atlanta.

She started her talk by asking the audience the following question: “In the past year have you experienced (a) relatively little stress, (b) a moderate amount of stress, (c) a lot of stress.”

Most people raised their hands to show that they had experienced a lot of stress. This appears to be the case in our fast-paced, more-with-less, 24/7 society. We’re always available, even when we’re in the washroom or when we’re having a shower.

People have actually broken legs jumping out of the shower to answer the phone. In church, before the service begins, we’re asked to turn our iPhones off or to put them on silent mode. In business we’re fighting deadlines, dealing with constant complaints and being pushed to the limit to increase productivity.

Is it any wonder that so may people are feeling stress?

Many people never get a break, even when they’re on vacation. In fact, some people don’t even take a vacation anymore and of those who do, many don’t use up all their vacation time. The fact that stress management is the most well-attended seminar I conduct does not come as a surprise to me.

The good news according to Ms McGonigal is that we can now do something to deal with our stress. She said that people need to change their mindset and say “I’ve changed my mind about stress.”

She informed us that people who believe stress is harmful have a higher rate of mortality. “There are mindsets that affect longevity,” said Ms McGonigal. She informed us that people who believe that a lot of stress is harmful have a 43 per cent higher risk of mortality. Also, “people with a positive view of ageing, on average live seven years longer.”

The secret is to harness stress. Stress is energy and if we can channel that energy positively we can be in control.

The message was loud and clear that we need a positive mindset for stress. So you need to ask yourself what is your stress mindset. If you can convince yourself of the following you’ll be doing yourself a big favour:

• Stress is positive and can be harnessed.

• Stress improves my vitality.

• Stress facilitates my learning.

• Stress enhances my performance.

Having a growth mindset means that you have to believe that you yourself can change and that people in general can change. When we do this “stress can make us kinder, more social” according to Ms McGonigal. This is because the body releases the hormone oxytocin during stress.

High oxytocin levels help us to feel that we can do something to overcome the stressful situation. It also increases our empathy and makes us want to help others. It dampens fear and increases hope.

An interesting example of people harnessing their stress is when they have to make a presentation or give a speech. Public speaking is very stressful for most people. However, the stress it generates is nervous energy.

If we harness the energy then that stress can be channelled into success with a change in mindset. Positive visioning is seeing the enthusiasm of the audience and hearing the applause before you even get up to speak. You visualise success.

Ms McGonigal is a health psychologist, lecturer in management at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and award-winning author. She is also a lecturer for the Stanford Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, part of the School of Medicine’s Institute for Translation Neuroscience.

I was invited to a press briefing with Ms McGonigal. I asked her about the terminology “eustress” and “distress”.

Eustress is the happy stress, like getting married and distress is the negative stress like fighting a tight deadline for your boss.

She responded that she didn’t use that terminology but didn’t deny the harmful effects of stress on the body. She emphasised how important it is to “choose a philosophy of life that we’re going to commit to”. She informed us that people who go through a terrorist attack can get over it better than people who are watching it for several days. She talked about attitudinal readaptation when faced with a stressful situation.

By a strange coincidence the soap in the hotel where I was staying in Atlanta came in a box with the words “Stress Relief”. I didn’t realise that soap could be a stress reliever, but I guess we live and learn.

Paul Loftus will also be covering the Society for Human Resource Management Conference in New Orleans from June 18 to 21. He would like to hear from any Bermudians who will be attending the conference

Paul Loftus is an industrial/organisational psychologist, an intercultural consultant and a freelance journalist. He has been conducting both public and in-company management development seminars in Bermuda for 20 years. He can be reached at (514) 282-9111; ploftus@colba.net; www.paulloftus.com