How To Use Your Stress to Your Advantage (And Change Your Life)

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While you might be under the impression that stress is a wicked enemy you’ll need to face in the long, tumultuous battle for a successful career, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Dr. Delatorro McNeal II, peak performance expert, TV personality, author of Thriving Through Your Storms, and founder of Platinum Performance Global has some tips on how to embrace your stress as a teacher, not as a foe.

What even is stress?

Dr. McNeal notes that stress isn’t just some nebulous, undefinable idea that haunts you day in and day out – in fact, some of the synonyms of stress, like “weight,” “force,” “importance,” or “urgency” might tell you more about how stress manifests than you’d think. Stressors, in general, can come from anywhere, and they apply a certain amount of unforeseen pressure to someone’s daily life, usually enough to cause emotional, physical, or psychological overwhelm. But the notion that stress is inherently something to avoid or something to dread isn’t always accurate.

“Contrary to popular belief, stress is a necessary element of life,” Dr. McNeal says. “Stress has a purpose. Whether on the job or at home, it can work for the good. You just have to allow it to do so. No, it’s not always welcomed. It’s not always something we want to deal with or willingly partner with. Unfortunately, we have all viewed stress in an exclusively negative connotation. But what if the stress was merely the result of our refusal to lean into the curves of life and business?”

“The main lesson is knowing what stress is and what stress is not. You can’t see it, but it’s always there… We often treat it as though it has intruded on our plans and our agendas. We get angry at its mere presence, and can often make our physical bodies sick trying to control it.”

But while stress can certainly cause undesirable physical symptoms, Dr. McNeal says, sometimes, the intense, visceral reaction you might be feeling is your unconscious urge to fight and reject a natural change that could be helpful in the long run. The responses you exert when initially feeling stressed out, like snapping at people, shutting down or feeling depressed are all reactive emotions that you’re unconsciously using to defend against the stress. “What if stress had a chance to speak; what would it say? How would it defend itself?”

How do we decode it?

The best way to decode stress, Dr. McNeal says, is to listen to what it’s trying to tell you. There might be sad events in your life that you’d consider stressors, physically or mentally taxing ones, big business deals or intimate family troubles. But no matter what the situation, there are always creative little things you can do to lean in, embrace your stressors, and use the tension as a tool. The more you try to fight the stressor, the more stressed you’ll feel. The key is to let up on some of your resistance (like telling yourself, “I don’t want to do this,” or “this makes me so stressed”) to discover what’s going on underneath.

Most of the time, Dr. McNeal adds, stress is deeper and more emotionally charged than simply the problem at hand. Whether your perspectives aren’t aligning with coworkers on the completion of a project or you feel like there’s too much work on your shoulders and your colleagues aren’t picking up the slack, you can always step back, examine where this stressor might be able to take you, and fold it into your future plan. Sympathetic nervous system arousal (colloquially known as a “fight-or-flight response”) can be triggered by either fear or excitement depending on the circumstances, but the physiological feelings are the same for both – so why can’t stress be as inspiring as it is frightening?

What do I do when stress becomes too intense?

There are certainly times when stress can impact your ability to function, Dr. McNeal says. But even then, you have to listen to what the stress is telling you. Again, the more you try to fight it, the worse you’re going to feel.

“When stress begins to take over your body and your ability to function, that indicates an imbalance,” Dr. McNeal continues. When that happens, you’ve got to take some time to rest, and consider how you might move forward. “It will command that you take a step back and allow yourself to focus on what’s important. Stress is ever-teaching, ever-speaking, and ever-maturing. We simply have to get in position and let stress have its perfect work even when at work.”

“I have learned over the years that stress is just another way of telling me to stop, breathe, and highlight the areas of my life where I’ve resisted change,” Dr. McNeal adds. No matter if the stressor is large or small, it’s always worth examining, as it could hold the keys to some more productive coping mechanisms. “It causes me to notice that I’ve been hitting the potholes that I honestly could have avoided.”

Listen to your stress

If you’re feeling stressed, no matter if it’s one stressor that’s on your mind or many, take an evening or afternoon, sit down, and try to communicate with the parts of yourself that you might be trying to suppress. You can do this by journaling, thinking, having a conversation with a loved one or boss, or just meditating on your stress. However you decide to confront it, sitting down and bearing through the discomfort is of the utmost importance.

“Listen to [the stress] and ask why it has shown up,” Dr. McNeal says. “Yes, it sounds a bit far-fetched; but you do have the authority to ask stress why it’s here and why now.” When you find out why something is stressing you out to no end, only then can you work with what the stress is teaching you and develop better skills to handle it in the future. Stress, in some ways, is like an indicator light on a car. It notifies you that something is amiss, but it’s your job to get elbows-deep in grease and motor oil and fix it yourself so that you can get back on the road (and yes, for the sake of this metaphor, you are a mechanic).

“Some stressors will always show up and are purely inevitable,” Dr. McNeal concludes. “Does this mean that you fall into a pit of despair and aggravation? No! Does this indicate that you can now sulk and give up? Absolutely not! Do you have to take out your irritations of its presence on others? Not at all!” And as long as you’re mindful about taking in your stress and learning from it, you’ll be guaranteed to have a higher tolerance for it in the future.

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