Many people view stress as a negative phenomenon, as a health risk, and as something to be avoided. In some ways, this is true. Chronic and traumatic stresses are related to nearly all forms of mental and physical illness; however, the role that stress plays in mental and physical health is often overlooked. After all, if we avoided stress altogether, we would never learn or ever experience growth. Effects of stress have more to do with the way we respond rather than the type of stressor itself. In other words, it is how well we regulate ourselves when faced with a challenging situation rather than the situation or event in itself.
Common stressors today include work, academic demand, abuse, poverty, illness, natural disasters, war, or loss. These hardships do not always lead to dire or detrimental outcomes. However, perceiving stress as negative and as something to be avoided can. Doing so actually perpetuates stress-related illness, as it distracts us from recognizing the fundamental life-enhancing nature of stress. Stress can lead to increased mental toughness, heightened awareness, a sense of mastery, strengthened priorities, deeper relationships, greater appreciation for life, and an increased sense of meaningfulness. Why is it, then, that some of us experience negative effects of stress while others report positive changes?
In a word – resilience. The degree of one’s resilience is shaped by the way individuals perceive and respond to threats, and the way they make use of their resources and coping skills. Perception of control is central to stress response. Individuals with inner focus of control cope better with stress than those with more external-focused control. The former believe that the consequences of their actions depend on their behaviors or characteristics, while the latter believe that the outcome is due to luck or chance, and is generally unpredictable. The former believe that although they cannot entirely control all external events, they have a choice in how they react. The latter maintain that they have little or no control over what happens to them.
Furthermore, while mind is pertinent to stress response, the process begins with the body. The body is the instrument that informs us of reality. The body is designed to not only regulate itself under stressful conditions, but it also has the capacity to adapt and grow by using these conditions to stimulate recovery and immunity.
So, next time you are faced with stress, remember that stress is natural, and okay, and not something to resist. Remember to be intentional about how you choose to respond. Pay attention to your body and tune into your sense of inner control. Harness the body’s natural coping capabilities. Nurture your body by avoiding caffeine, alcohol and nicotine; maintain regular physical activity and get adequate sleep; manage your time and priorities, make time for leisure and relaxation activities; or talk to someone. Take charge over the things that are within your power to manage and regulate. We cannot control when adversity hits, but we can control what we do about it. So listen to your body, accept reality as it is, and trust in your capacity to self-regulate.