Getting Good at Stress


How much do you say this? How often do you hear it? Truth is, a lot of times when I say it, it isn’t actually true. I am handling it or I figure out a way to handle it. Much of my job is pointing out to my clients all the amazing ways that they are handling really hard challenges too. So why do we so often sell ourselves short? Why do we instantly rush to what we cannot do when we really can do it? When we decide we cannot do something, our body necessarily needs to perceive the situation as threatening, even if it is not. With this mindset, we can unwittingly train ourselves towards a threat response when what we actually need is a challenge response.

A threat response primes you to defend yourself. You anticipate physical or other kinds of harm and your body gets ready. A challenge response primes you for performance without preparing for harm, per se. And here is the crazy thing…..having lots of challenge responses is associated with “superior aging, cardiovascular health, and brain health.” (p.111) In other words, it is good for us to experience lots of life challenges and respond with a challenge response! The good news is that we can train ourselves towards a challenge response and away from a threat response by quickly reviewing the resources we have available to us when we face something really difficult. What might this be like?

  • “What have I done in the past when I’ve been this crunched?” vs. “I can never meet this deadline”
  • Making a list of friends who will step up to help through a spouse’s chemo vs. “I will never make it through this”
  • Praying and remembering those who will pray for you vs. “I am all alone and I will never make it through this job loss.”

When we really need a threat response, when we really CANNOT handle something, then having a threat response is exactly what we need! But in reality, many of us punt to a threat response when it is, in reality, unnecessary. And learning to quickly remember all the resources we have available to us is a pretty easy intervention to learn! And then your stress response can be truly helpful to you! It isn’t the harmful thing we once thought!

I’m amazed over and over again by the resiliency of people and the amazing capacity of human beings to handle really horrible, scary, and tough, tough life situations. Watching people realize they can and/or have made it is one of the joys of being a therapist.

So, are you willing to try reviewing your own resources when you find yourself moving towards a threat response?

The quotes are from Kelly McGonigal’s great book: The Upside of Stress. See my blog reviewing the book here.

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