5 Simple Tricks to Make Stress Good for You

Parenting worries? Work anxiety? Sometimes they can actually help (really!).

Photo by Granger Wootz/Getty Images

If you're always trying to fight stress, you're going about it all wrong, according Stanford psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal. Her new book The Upside of Stress, focuses on how stress can actually be good for you and how to get good at stress. We often hear about how deadly stress is for our hearts, blood pressure, and overall well being. But it turns out that stress might only be toxic when people believe it's harming them.

In one study that McGonigal cites in her book, high levels of stress increased participants' risk of dying by 43 percent, but the risk only applied to people who also thought that their stressful lives were harming their health. Those who reported stress, but did not feel it was hurting them, actually had the lowest risk of death of any in the study—even lower than those who reported less stressful lives.

Other research has suggested that the same may hold true for the connection between heart disease and stress, says McGonigal. It all boils down to stress mindset, a term coined by Dr. Alia Crum that means the way we perceive stress. In short, we need to stop thinking of it as the enemy. "The message that a stressful life is toxic makes you feel like there's something fundamentally wrong with you for experiencing stress or there's something fundamentally wrong with your life," says McGonigal.

The upside of stress is a concept most people understand at some level, especially the idea that we grow from adversity or that going through something difficult can bring us closer to people we care about, says McGonigal. Stress can also help us engage with challenges and perform better in trying situations. "If you talk to people about the benefits of stress, most people know it exists," she says. "But it's not what they're thinking about in moments of stress."

The trick is to remember a few simple mind resets when you find yourself in stressful situations. These exercises, recommended by McGonigal, can help you turn stress from something negative into something positive that benefits you:

1. Reframe your anxiety as energy. While most men experience stress in the form of anger, women more commonly feel anxiety as a result of stress. We feel physical symptoms, like sweating, heart pounding, and that adrenaline rush. When you experience those symptoms, it's important to remind yourself that your body is working with you, not against you. Research shows that feeling anxious can actually help you perform the task at hand better—even though many people believe the opposite to be true, says McGonigal. So the next time you feel your palms sweating before a big presentation, tell yourself that your body is ramping up to help you stay more alert and do your very best.

2. Remind yourself that you're not alone. When you find yourself awake at night, feeling overwhelmed by chronic worries, such as financial problems or a difficult health diagnosis, think of others who are going through the same struggle. "When stress feels isolating, it becomes toxic," says McGonigal. Focusing on others faced with similar obstacles will serve as a reminder that your life is not uniquely screwed up. And that extra moment can create a little breathing room between you and your stress.

3. Lend a hand. The next time you feel overwhelmed by stress, try this simple trick: Do something nice and unexpected for someone else. By turning your attention away from yourself and onto something bigger, you can reduce anxiety and increase hope and courage, says McGonigal. It's called the tend and befriend response, and that feel-good energy can give you a better perspective.

When it comes to lending a hand, bigger doesn't necessarily mean better. You can walk a friend's dog or simply smile at your barista when you drop a few extra dollars in the tip jar. The most important part is that you do something nice, unexpected, and outside of your regular responsibility. "It's more likely that you'll get that warm glow boost of hope and self confidence when it's something that feels like you chose it," says McGonigal.

4. Pay attention to how others worry. Pay attention to how your friends and family deal with anxiety. When someone is anxious about an upcoming job interview, remind him or her that stress shows how important the opportunity is. By sharing this perspective, your friend may do the same for you the next time you feel worried (or you might be able to do it for yourself).

5. Reflect on your growth. Dwelling on a situation that didn't go as planned can cause major stress. In situations like these, it's a good idea to think about what you've learned. Use it as an opportunity to reflect and grow. Approaching stress with this mindset has two benefits: In the short-term, it takes some of the negativity out of the worry you're feeling. In the long-term, it has the power to change how you'll handle tough situations next time. "It's easier than people think because you don't have to be 100 percent committed," says McGonigal. "Even being aware that you're trying can make a difference."