Stress rarely feels good… it makes some of us grumpy and others angry. Some people overeat and others have no appetite at all. It affects us differently, but we can't eliminate it completely. What if you could actually use stress to your advantage?
In her book, The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal defines stress as what happens when something we care about is at stake.
“Stress happens when something you care about is at stake. It's not a sign to run away - it's a sign to step forward.” - Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress
New research is exploring how to leverage stress to prime the brain for improved performance. Recent studies conducted at UC Berkeley maintain that controlled amounts of acute stress can actually lead to neural growth and enhanced connectivity. They found that intermittent stressful events on rats triggered the release of growth proteins with in turn led to the growth of new neurons. Two weeks later, those mature neurons improved the mental performance of the rats. While the study of stress and new cell growth is still being explored, scientists agree that certain amounts of regulated stress can create the optimum conditions for behavioral and cognitive performance.
The key is how we react to the stress. When we perceive the stress to be a threat, it is fueled by self-doubt. This puts the downstairs brain (survival brain) in charge rather than the upstairs brain (thinking brain). When the downstairs brain is in charge, we aren’t thinking, we’re reactive. We are focused on safety rather than our ability to contribute. Conversely, when we can learn how to shift our perception of stress from a threat to a challenge, we put the thinking brain in charge and we are able to fuel creativity from the flow of inspiration.
However it happens on a neurological level, we have the power to rewire our brains to leverage stress for creativity if we understand the two main streams of mental activity and how they influence whether we use stress as inspiration for creativity or a detour to reactivity.
Understanding how to reappraise your mindset about stress and self-doubt will help you mobilize your energy and your resources to take care of whatever is at stake for you. That just means approaching stress mindfully – with openness, curiosity and kindness rather than anger, fear or judgment.