Article updated in September 2020.
Stressful situations are a fact of life in today’s society. But what if we could take those feelings of stress and reframe them in a more positive light? What if stress could be rechannelled in a more positive way to help us achieve our goals?
Let’s rewind to ancient Greece and the teachings of the philosopher Epicurus. For those who believe in the epicurean way of life, the pursuit of a stress-free existence is the ultimate goal. In an interview with Five Books, James Warren, Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, explains why a sportsman, for example, would be unlikely to share the epicurean mindset: “Epicureans don’t deny that physical pain is a bad thing, but they say you should arrange your life so as to have as little possibility in it for pain as possible. You wouldn’t go and do extreme sports and so on, because that’s likely to cause you physical pain sooner or later.”
However, protecting yourself from defeat is unlikely to help you reach the top. Essentially, no pain – no gain. And let’s not forget the animal kingdom. What may at first seem like an extreme version of a positive-stress example is also one that couldn’t be clearer: a wildebeest is able to survive the attentions of a leopard purely because of the ‘stressful’ way it reacts. His fight or flight mechanism kicking in is what will help him live to see another day.
But what does this mean beyond the sports field? Well, as a senior member of your organisation, you’re likely to be faced with multiple demands on your time and are ultimately responsible for the distribution of resources within it. So, you have a lot on your shoulders, which can be a stressful situation to find yourself in.
The first step is to recognise your stress. Research by Professor Matthew Lieberman, a social cognitive neuroscience lab director at UCLA’s Department of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, found that merely identifying your stress and labelling it changes where you store it in the brain. What this means in practice is that, rather than thinking about an insurmountable problem that merely compounds stress, it reframes the situation as a challenge – and that makes you more able to deal with it.
The second step is to see your situation as ‘positive stress’. Speaking to the Harvard Business Review, former Navy SEAL Commander Curt Cronin explained how being present – what some might call mindfulness – is key. “In Navy SEAL training, the leadership cadre designs situations that are exponentially more stressful, chaotic, and dynamic than any combat operation so that the teams learn to centre [themselves] in the most arduous circumstances,” he explains. “When the stress of the training seems unbearable, we can own it, knowing that ultimately it is what we have chosen to do – to be a member of a team that can succeed in any mission.”
The third and final step is to harness your situation by formulating a plan of action. Nothing worth doing is stress-free, as those athletes will attest. For Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway, it all comes down to finding something that’s worth worrying about. “A job that you don’t worry about is not worth doing,” she writes. “But here some sorts of worry are better than others. In my new job, I worry about my students, individually and collectively.
“In my old days as a columnist, I worried about how many hits there were on my columns, how many comments and shares. Even as I write this, I have the familiar dread that a reader will write: ‘That’s two minutes of my life I’ll never get back.’ This is pointless, painful and counterproductive, as is most worrying about yourself. My worrying that I’m too stressed or sleepless make me more so.”
So there you have it. Stop worrying – unless it’s worth it – and focus on the things you can change for the better.
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