5 Ways to Make Stress Work for You

Yes, it’s a fact of modern life. So why not use stress for good, not evil? Here’s how.

You’re behind on a major project. The nurse at your child’s school called for the second time in three days. And as the e-mail at the top of your in-box just informed you, you forgot to pay last month’s electric bill. You could hide under the covers—but what good would it do? Like a rubber ball in a pool, stress that’s pushed beneath the surface eventually bobs back up.

A better approach? Embrace it. (No, seriously.) “Learning to work with your stress, rather than against it, can safeguard your health,” says Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., a health psychologist at Stanford University and the author of The Upside of Stress. In fact, everyday stress can actually increase immunity, productivity, and creativity, according to emerging research. All it takes is a shift in perspective and a few tweaks to your daily habits. Here’s how to make the most of whatever life throws your way.


Find Meaning by Asking Yourself, “How Would I Feel if My Biggest Source of Stress Suddenly Disappeared?”

Photo by Kenji Aoki

Happy and meaningful lives are not free of stress. In fact, the more stressed people considered themselves, the more meaningful they felt their lives were, according to a 2013 study published in Journal of Positive Psychology. Being a parent, for instance, significantly increases your daily strain. But it also ups your chances of laughing and smiling regularly, according to a 2014 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey. (A crucial caveat: If you’re suffering from depression, skip this question and seek the help of a mental-health professional.)


Ease Anxiety by Not Trying to Relax.

You could take sweaty palms and a belly full of butterflies as signs that you need to get your anxiety under control, or you could think of them as your body’s saying, “I’m ready for this challenge.” When people gave a five-minute speech to visibly disapproving judges, those who had been coached to interpret their physical reactions as beneficial (for example: “My pounding heart shows me I’m excited”) felt less anxious and had fewer signs of cardiovascular stress, such as high blood pressure, compared with those who hadn’t been coached, according to a 2013 study published in Clinical Psychological Science.


Use Mental Stress to Reach a Personal Best.

The next time you’re tense, remind yourself that stress can be helpful. You’ll increase the odds that your body will respond with the challenge stress response, and this boosts your chances of achieving an athletic goal, according to a 2015 study published in Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. “It sends extra oxygen and nutrients to the brain and muscles, helping them to function more effectively,” says Lee J. Moore, Ph.D., the study author and a lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Gloucestershire, in the United Kingdom.


Boost Creativity by—Yes—Procrastinating.

Too much stress (think inflexible deadlines and unrealistic expectations) kills creativity. But having no pressure is just as likely to leave you in an idea rut. Experiencing a moderate level of stress while working on a particular project, however, can fuel innovation. One way to find the stress/creativity sweet spot is to stop rushing to get ahead of the game. Provided that you aren’t suffering from chronic anxiety or don’t regularly miss deadlines, “delaying the start of a project can build moderate levels of positive stress,” says Melissa Gratias, Ph.D., a psychologist in Savannah, Georgia. “And that causes your body to release adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol—hormones that improve energy and focus.” Just don’t confuse mind-numbing procrastination (like browsing Facebook when you have two hours to finish a massive project) with creativity-fueling rumination. “Delaying fuels creativity only if you reflect on your project and brainstorm throughout the day when you’re not actively working,” says Gratias. (She recommends using calendar reminders and/or a to-do list with drop-dead dates to make sure that you don’t overpostpone.)


Use Stress to Learn.

Under pressure? That’s the best time to take a break and work on your backhand or practice the piano. “Stress helps the procedural-learning area of your brain—the part you use to hone skills that require repetitive practice,” says Shawn W. Ell, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Maine, in Orono. (That’s because your stress response initiates a cascade of neural events that disrupt the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for overthinking. This allows you to stop second-guessing yourself and improve your skills.) At the same time, losing yourself in an activity that you enjoy can lower your blood pressure, which will make you feel—you guessed it—less stressed.