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turning stress into an asset

07/07/11 , ,

turning lemons into lemonade sounds easy in theory, but it can be hard to make sweet and sour goodness out of life’s problems. nevertheless, it is imperative that we learn how to handle stressful situations in order to preserve both our physical and mental health. knowing this, harvard business review consulted two stress management experts, justin menkes and shawn achor, and put together a good 5-step blueprint for creating positives out of negatives.

1. Recognize worry for what it is “When you hear about stress being unhealthy it is so often because people aren’t getting to a place where they are seeing worry for what it is: a feeling,” says Menkes. The heightened reaction — tension in the body, heart racing — is an indicator of how much you care about the task you are about to do. In fact, according to Menkes, how much stress you feel is directly correlated to the importance of the activity. “If it didn’t matter, you wouldn’t worry,” he says. Once you understand worry as an indicator rather than a symptom of dysfunction or a cause for panic, you can react to it more rationally. Plus, remember that stress is not unending. “Feelings by definition are fleeting. They feel like they will be eternal but just give it five minutes,” says Menkes.

2. Then, reframe the stress Once you’ve recognized what worry is, you then need to adjust your mindset. Achor’s research shows that how you view stress determines its effect on you. “Our brains work much better at positive than at negative, neutral, or stressed,” he says. When you are negative and worried, your brain goes into “fight or flight” mode, which limits your ability to think. If you are positive and concerned, then your brain turns to “broaden and build” thinking which allows you to process more possibilities. Which direction you go in is up to you. “When people have a stress in their life, they can attempt to see it as a challenge, instead of a threat,” says Achor. This mental shift will allow the feeling to be activating rather than paralyzing.

3. Focus on what you can control One of the most positive things you can do when faced with worry or anxiety is to remember what you can affect and what you can’t. Far too many people spend time feeling bad about things they simply can’t change. In Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, he outlines an exercise he calls the Island Experiment. He suggests you write out a list of stresses and put them into two circles, “islands.” One island holds the things you can control. The other is for the things you can’t. Ignore that second island and choose a single concrete action to take in the first. This will begin to solve the stress and move you toward your goal.

4. Create a network of support Knowing that you have somebody to turn to can help a lot. “It’s important to have that outlet so you know you can freak the heck out if you need to,” says Menkes. You may not use this option, but it can be comforting to know it’s there. Build supportive relationships when you’re not stressed. Menkes encourages you to “put in the effort and build the emotional deposit” so you can cash it in when and if required. The company you keep also makes a difference. “Surround yourself with people who do not complain or ruminate upon things they can’t change,” says Achor.

5. Get some stress-handling experience According to Menkes, the best way to learn to handle stress is through practice. “If the body is not used to stress and you experience it, you’ll panic and it becomes a vicious cycle that needs to be broken,” says Menkes. He often sees this in younger people: “They have more intense reactivity than older people. It’s not only a function of hormones but it’s a function of experience.” Don’t wait for a dire situation to try out these techniques. “Think about ways you can put yourself in non-game-changing, but pressured, situations. Pressure and fear are good because it means you are stretching,” says Menkes. For example, if public speaking is nerve-wracking for you, he suggests you sign up for Toastmasters and try out your skills in a contained setting. Set up experiments in which you feel stress, but can manage it.

Principles to Remember


  • Think of stress as an indicator that you care about something, rather than a cause for panic
  • Focus on the task, rather than the emotion
  • Build relationships so that you have people to turn to in times of stress


  • Assume your stress is going to last forever
  • Worry about things that are out of your control
  • Spend time with people who are negative

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2 notes

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