Reams of articles and books have been written on stress management, detailing how to reduce or eliminate it from your life, but I think many of them are overrated.
Long-term stress—for example, being on red alert for weeks or months at a time due to a high-pressure work project—is hell on your system. But short-term stress—those bursts of adrenaline we get in situations when we need to spring into action—is an essential part of life. Men need stress to live. Every successful man in history—from Sir Isaac Newton to Steve Jobs—faced stressful situations in which the outcome was in doubt. Many of them faced extreme stress. It’s part of what made them admirable.
And as evil as stress is made out to be in our culture, the fact is that we like stress. Most of our leisure activities—from skiing to mountain biking to watching sports to roller coasters to first-person-shooter video gaming—involve deliberately exposing ourselves to controlled, short-term forms of stress. For the most part, short-term stress is fun.
It’s even good for you: studies indicate that people who have a robust short-term stress response—a pounding heart, a sweaty brow, rapid breathing—heal better after surgery or vaccination, and they may respond better to cancer treatment. Exercise and sex—which are unequivocally good for you—both stimulate a hormonal response similar to what happens when you get charged by an angry pit bull.
One major key to conquering the bad kind of stress—the chronic version that keeps us up at night, distracts us from the things we enjoy most in life, and eats at our gut when we’re trying to relax—is not so much to avoid it altogether but to reframe the way you think about it.
Sound abstract? Let me explain.
All of us have gone through busy periods in which our careers or families (or both) are demanding a lot of us: a big project is due, the boss is breathing down your neck, the house needs a new roof, your mother needs help at home, your son is starting in a playoff game, your wife is asking for a well-deserved night out. (A friend of mine recently joked that in times like these he feels as if every email in his inbox says “Dear Jack: Please do everything. Love, Everyone.”)
Sometimes, those intense periods can make you want to crawl under a rock, leading you to drop the ball under pressure: the project is substandard, you miss the big game, and you fail to make dinner reservations—so you wind up in the doghouse, at work and at home. First you flail, then you fail. Other times, those intense periods have the opposite effect. Like a QB down by a field goal with seconds to play, you cowboy up and handle it, one task at a time, until you’re on the other side of all that stress, with all your obligations signed, sealed, and delivered. And you feel like a superhero.
Interestingly, your ability to make it through those stressful situations with flying colors may hinge on how you perceive stress itself.
An eight-year study of thirty thousand adults of various ages found that people who experienced high stress and viewed stress as harmful to their health had a 43 percent higher risk of dying than others in the study. But people who experienced high stress—but did not consider stress harmful—had a much lower chance of dying. In fact, their risk of dying was even lower than those who experienced relatively little stress.
This is why I consider most of our beliefs about stress relief and the dangers of stress to be off base. It may not be stress itself that’s causing all the problems, but our belief that stress is inherently bad.
A second study lends some support to this novel view. Two groups of adults were exposed to stressful situations: a math test with a judgmental instructor, and an impromptu public speaking assignment with a hostile audience. One group faced these situations cold. The second was told beforehand that the body’s stress response was beneficial in high-pressure situations—a physiological marshalling of forces that helped them meet the challenges with which they were confronted.
Both groups experienced the pounding heart, shortness of breath, and sweaty palms we associate with stress. But the cardiovascular response to these situations was markedly different in the two groups. The blood vessels in the group that went into the stressful situations cold constricted strongly, a response that, coupled with a rapid heart, can lead to cardiac disease over time. By contrast, the blood vessels in the group that was given the “stress is good” pep talk dilated—a physiological response similar to what we experience in moments of joy or courage. Over many years, the difference between these two responses to stress—one detrimental, the other salutary—can spell the difference between dying at a younger age and living to a ripe old age (with many stories to tell of the heart-pounding adventures you’ve undergone in your long, colorful life).
So aside from finding ways to avoid chronic stress, simply thinking of your short-term stress response as your body helping you rise to the demands of a challenging situation can mitigate the damage that stress can cause. And now that you’ve heard about it, remind yourself of it whenever you get stressed. You may even thank your body for its efforts to protect you and help you perform optimally. The outward signs of stress may remain— maybe your hands will get clammy, maybe your heart will pound—but inside, you’ll be healthier for it.
Read more in my book: Your New Prime: 30 Days to Better Sex, Eternal Strength, and a Kick Ass Life After 40