How to Turn Stress into a Growth Opportunity
- Stress can also be an opportunity for growth
- First you need to adopt a “stress is beneficial” mindset
- Then you need to take action on something important to you
During times of crisis, it’s not unusual to worry about things that feel out of your control. In the current pandemic, many of us are concerned about matters of health, finances and even whether to send our kids back to school. You might be worrying about what long-term effects there could be for yourself, your team, or your family. These worries can lead to feelings of anxiety and stress.
For some, they might lead to long-term problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress.
But what about those individuals who come through difficult periods and experience growth afterward? This phenomenon is called post-traumatic growth. How is it that these individuals come through the trauma with a positive response? And, even more importantly, how can more of us experience this?
The theory of post-traumatic growth was developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun. They found that for individuals who grew after a trauma, they saw improved relationships, greater appreciation of life, and enhanced perceptions of strength and mastery.
So what determines whether stress and trauma will harm or help us? It turns out that . . . we do.
There are two tools that can help us leverage the stress we’re feeling and turn it into a growth opportunity. The first is our mindset and the second is our actions.
Let’s first look at mindsets. There is a considerable body of research regarding the effectiveness of mindset changes as it relates to post-traumatic growth. When we push ourselves to modify how we’re thinking about a situation, it can change our results. In this way, our mindset about stress can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Stress can activate a variety of responses. When we adopt a “stress-is-beneficial” mindset, however, we’re far more likely to achieve an optimal level of activation. In other words, we are energized enough to take action but not too much as to find it paralyzing or overwhelming.
I have been using this simple but powerful tool with my clients over the last several months. While we acknowledge the stress they feel, I ask them to rephrase how they are thinking about the situation so that they are seeing it as an opportunity rather than as a threat.
It’s not about saying “This isn’t stressful.” But it is about telling ourselves “Stress can also be good for me” or “I have what it takes to manage this situation.” In many cases, we explore together what strengths they already have that will serve them well for upcoming challenges.
Now that we’ve looked at mindset, let’s consider the actions we can take. The first action is to take care of yourself. You might use this as an opportunity to explore better methods of self-care or recommit to healthful practices like getting sufficient sleep, eating the right foods, and getting more exercise. When we tend to our own needs, we have more resources available to deal with the situation and continue to look forward.
In addition to caring for yourself, it is the time to take action on something important to you; find one thing you can do to move yourself forward, and it can quickly decrease your negative feelings. This could be reconnecting with someone in your network, getting clear on your career goals and aspirations or tackling a task you have been putting off. Making progress on meaningful work keeps us focused on our goals.
We know we can’t always control the circumstances we’re in, but we do have the opportunity to consider how we respond to them. When faced with stress and trauma, it’s important to acknowledge your stress and the corresponding emotions you feel — and then see that stress as a resource you can leverage to achieve your goals.
We can acknowledge the situations and challenges around us. We don’t pretend they aren’t happening or that they don’t have any negative effects. But then we ask ourselves: “What’s next?”
It’s about seeing stress and trauma as challenging, rather than threatening. It’s about acknowledging that the current situation is the beginning — rather than the end.
Crum, A.J., Jamieson, J.J., & Akinola, M. (2020) Optimizing Stress: An Integrated Intervention for Regulating Stress Responses. Emotion, 20(1), 120-125.
Crum, A. J., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 104(4), 716–733..
Jamieson, J.J., Crum, A.J., Goyer, J.P., Marotta, J.E. & Akinola, M. (2018) Optimizing stress responses with reappraisal and mindset interventions: an integrated model, Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 31 (3), 245-261.
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