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Harnessing the Power of Stress

April is Stress Awareness Month. 

Stress is unavoidable. The demands of our work and personal lives pull us in all different directions. At some point, just maintaining a to-do list becomes a to-do of its own. When left unchecked, stress can eventually lead to the all-too-familiar feelings of overwhelm, burnout, and defeat.

On the flip side, stress is natural and necessary to our survival. Stress typically signals that we deeply care about something; it connects us directly with the most challenging and important aspects of our lives. When harnessed properly stress helps us, and the causes we are committed to, thrive.

When stress goes right.

Stress gets a bad rap. While we should be mindful of any negative stress responses (more on that below) stress isn’t always harmful and shouldn’t be avoided at all costs. In fact, embracing stress is more beneficial than avoiding it.

Stress can motivate us. Stress can enhance our performance. Stress can boost our energy. Stress can improve productivity, life satisfaction, and self-confidence.

Stress strengthens the coping strategies we already use and broadens our range of proficiency with others.  As a bonus, tapping into coping strategies to reduce the negative effects of stress actually contribute to positive effects at the same time.

The presence of stress develops our resilience, a crucial trait needed to survive when under pressure. Resilience refers to our “mental toughness”; our ability to handle stress when it arises, to protect oneself against the negative impact of stress, and quickly return to pre-stress levels. When stress is unavoidable, resilience ensures we “bounce back” from its challenges and secures our chance “to live to fight another day”.

When stress goes wrong.

I don’t want to sound tone-deaf.

Stress is deceptive. It has a way of creeping up on you. If you aren’t mindful, you may find that it’s gotten out of hand and has already caused a great deal of harm. Feeling overwhelmed by stress occurs when your physical/emotional/mental resources are (for one reason or another) insufficient to meet the demands you’re facing. When experienced over a prolonged time period, this can lead to effects that are both undesirable and unhealthy.

If you suspect your stress tolerance is maxing out, I encourage you to acquire the help of a professional. A medical doctor can help you manage the physical impacts of stress. A mental health professional can help you beef up your coping skills; or help you cultivate a stress mindset that can turn “bad stress” into a source that can actually contribute to a stronger, smarter, and happier you.

Harnessing the power of stress.

Whether you’re in the throes of stress or find yourself in that sweet spot between one stressor and the next, you can harness the positive powers of stress at any time.

It’s natural to want to avoid or eliminate stress.  And in some instances, such as lived trauma or oppression or any form of abuse, avoidance is not only healthy but is necessary to preserving your physical, emotional, and mental safety. However, most sources of stress don’t reach this level of severity. Stress exists on a continuum, and what we’re typically exposed to doesn’t pose an actual threat to our wellbeing (although it certainly may feel like it does).

Stress is inevitable. As tempted as we may be to avoid the discomfort of it, harnessing the power of stress and converting it into something that works with us rather than against will give us more bang for our buck in the long run.

Practicing mindfulness and gratitude are two top strategies that can transform how you approach stress.

Check out these two guided practices to help you get started.

Keep in mind that these may be new skills and it takes time and practice to adopt them into your life. Be patient with yourself as you work on growing these skills. And be patient as you learn to embrace stress as the opportunity for growth that it may actually be.

Until next time!

Dala Heymeyer

Dala F. Hemeyer, MSW, LCSW
Director of Counseling
Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri