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Can stress be a positive thing?

Can stress be a positive thing?
Retrain your mind to look for the 'positive stress'

Have you ever felt in control of your stress?

A weird question, but stick with me. Whether you find managing your finances stressful or balancing your home and work life, many of us find that we are often struggling with sleepless nights and worrying thoughts. According to the mental health charity Mind, one in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week in England alone.

So if there were a way to harness anxious thoughts and use them to make better decisions, surely this would turn anxiety into a positive emotion?

World-renowned neuroscientist and author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life, Dr Suzuki, talks more about her journey in reframing how she feels about misunderstood emotions.

Change your outlook

Anxiety occurs when small amounts of negative stress affect both the mind and body. The brain and body are essentially interconnected, so I often use the term body-mind when referring to holistic therapy in my practice. When Dr Suzuki began to trace the neurological roots of the relationship between anxiety and a more positive outlook (the boost in confidence and the more tangible increase in happiness), she found that anxiety didn't suddenly disappear. It transformed from a negative state into a positive one.

Dr Suzuki then started to view anxiety as a kind of neuronal stimulation with different effects. As a form of energy, anxiety stimuli takes on a positive or negative cast, depending on how the person responds to a particular stressor.

She found that her positive feelings were actually responses to exercise, a clean diet, and meditation. She tried these strategies to reduce the effects of stress in her life - too many deadlines, too many days without a break, too many sugary, fatty dinners with little exercise. Her anxiety, therefore, drove her to make lifestyle changes that created a source of joy.

Change your words

If we look at it from this point of view, anxiety is not all bad. It's all about how we experience this stimulation or how our body-mind systems interpret and manage daily stress. An outside stressor might trigger anxiety in the form of sleeplessness, worry, fear etc. But it can also create other responses. For example, public speaking would be a highly stressful and anxious event for me, but for others, the idea of standing up and speaking to a crowd would be exciting. One way of responding is not necessarily better than the other: it's more a reflection of the person's interpretation of stress, beliefs, and history.

So if the response changes based on perception, is it possible to take control of our responses?

The idea that anxiety is dynamic and changing can be hard to get your head around, especially when you are experiencing it in the moment. Anxiety, in its purest form, is there to protect us, and so it's often an inevitable feature of life, and none of us is immune.

But understanding anxiety gives us more freedom and allows us to stop fighting or resisting it. Instead of treating it as something to avoid or suppress, you could learn to use it to improve your life.

Like all of us, I encounter bouts of anxiety, but now I have a toolbox of things I can use to take the edge off, calm my body, or settle my mind to think clearly and feel more grounded. I can take a step back and show up positively for my mental health through exercise, sleep, food and body-mind practices. This is precisely how anxiety can be good for us.

Work with your anxiety.

As restrictions lift and our diaries are getting some love, re-entry anxiety is now real. Here are some tips on working with your anxiety rather than against it as we become social butterflies once again.

Be kind to yourself - We spend too much time on 'autopilot', which can give our internal critic the chance to go crazy. If you are beating yourself up for not making plans or not looking forward to dates in the diary, sit with those feelings and recognise them as completely normal. We've all been through a lot, so be aware, and show yourself some compassion.

Don't take on too much - Don't say yes to everything on offer. Instead, take a gradual step back into things, and keep things small and simple where possible. For example, if you're not ready for a busy yoga class, try booking in for a one-to-one with your tutor, or invite a friend over and follow a lesson on YouTube together.

Be mindful not to slip back into unhelpful habits - from baking to reading, rock painting to long walks; many of us found activities and passions we enjoyed during the lockdown months of 2020. We found healthy new habits as a result of slowing down. Acknowledge these, and make a conscious effort to continue with them.

Prioritise self-care - Whether self-care to you means journaling, meditating, taking a soak in the bath before bed, or a long walk in nature, taking care of ourselves is key to managing anxiety. Nurture yourself and your family, and try to do one kind thing for yourself every single day. It's not just nice to do; it's a must.

Go easy on yourself. Whatever you do today, let it be enough.

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