“Stress is like spice. In the right proportion, it enhances the flavour of a dish. Too little produces a bland, dull meal; too much may choke you.”—Donald Tubesing.
So, what’s your threshold for the spice of life? Stress doesn’t come from parents, peers, teachers, exams, deadlines, traffic jams, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts about your circumstances. Two people experiencing the same situation can respond in different ways. What pushes the stress button in one person can have no effect on another. Hence, stress is not the situation or event but rather how it is perceived.
Let’s discover the power of perspectives, positivity, and passion in helping us manage stress so that we can find more reasons to smile through tough times.
The Power Of Perspectives
Did you know that all first-year medical students at Yale are required to take an art class? Studies have found that art engagement increased medical students’ ability to detect important medical details, teaching them to become better clinical observers and improving their diagnostic skills.
Art and medicine are two completely different domains, so are the terms “challenge” and “threat”. You can pair both words with a stressful situation, and they will make sense. But surely the individual who sees the situation as a challenge will be happier than the one who has interpreted it as a threat.
Shawn Achor, positive psychology researcher and author of international bestsellers The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness, suggests using the “add vantage” technique to change one’s mindset around stress. Here’s how it works.
Try to think of as many positive words to describe a situation. For example, amid your mountain of assignments, you’ve been tasked to help your mum pick up your little sister from the daycare. Instead of labelling the activity as “troublesome”, “inconvenient”, or “a waste of time”, dig deeper to find meaning in the act, such as a chance to spend quality time with your sister, give your mum a day off from her chores, or give yourself a break from the books. You might also remember that the café beside your sister’s school serves your favourite dark chocolate ice cream. The result: You were never more enthusiastic to cram in extra hours on your project with the much-anticipated ice-cream outing planned with your sister later in the day.
Multiple vantage points multiply the opportunities for not just a positive state of mind but also successful action. In the above scenario, you chose not to sulk and be grumpy. Instead, you transformed an errand into a fun activity, and who knows, if not for the last-minute change in plans, your productivity for the day wouldn’t be as high.
“The more you do this, the more you realise that there’s not just one reality but multiple realities at any point, so the key is to pick the most adaptive reality,” says Achor. “The way we describe that event to ourselves and to other people changes the way we think about it… Focus on meaning, connection, how beautiful things look, then you have a different brain and social script for that event.”
So, don’t get stuck with one reality. Practice looking at your life from multiple vantage points. You can hone your ability to choose one thought over another by breaking your default patterns, such as taking a different route home or talking to a person you wouldn’t normally talk to, etc. With an open and adaptive mind, you will discover limitless perspectives.
The Power Of Positivity
Is your glass half empty or half full? Would you say that a result is 90% success or 10% failure? How you answer these questions about positive thinking reflects your outlook on life and your attitude towards yourself. Positive thinking doesn’t mean that you look the other way when faced with life’s unpleasant situations. It just means thinking about the best that can happen and not the worst.
We are always told to have a contingency plan for everything. The problem with this is that such a mindset risks building on negative thinking, giving failure a chance to become your reality. Of course, we should always have a backup. But think of all the ways you can succeed at your challenge before looking for the escape route. American philosopher Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) would tell you that “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.”
Positive thinking starts with positive self-talk. Follow one simple rule in your conversations with yourself. Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else. Be gentle and encouraging with yourself. Talk yourself into contentment. It is not about plain submission and acceptance of the unfavourable. It is about being grateful for what you have instead of spending most of your time thinking about what you can’t have.
Always aim to be better than yourself yesterday. When you evaluate your world in that light, you will see the improvements you have made that you would otherwise be blind to when your competition is the world. And finally, remember all your successes, as these successes will give you the confidence to succeed in difficult future situations—because you know that you have done it before.
When we find the positives in our experiences, we can regulate our emotions and recover from stressful events more quickly—and in the long run, live healthier and happier lives.
The Power Of Passion
In a generation like ours, everyone is going a mile a minute in their lives, not giving themselves a chance to breathe and reflect. It is easy to lose yourself when everything becomes a blur. But if we can decrease the noise in our head and find the passion within, working hard for something we love is no longer called stress.
Of course, you can’t love everything you do, but always remind yourself of the meaning behind those tasks and scenarios. For example, if you feel stressed about a job interview, remind yourself that it is your chance to advance your career. It is also a learning experience that can apply to your next and the next interview. You are not going to have only one interview in your entire professional life. Plus, when you walk through that interview door, hiring managers can tell whether you are fired up about the position, the company, and even about life itself. In the same way, if you are stressing about a presentation, learn to present with fervour. Your audience will feel your enthusiasm towards your topic.
Similarly, you can take your stress and turn it into a catalyst for action, a motivation to get off your feet and begin working towards improving your situation. When we have a greater sense of urgency, we have more energy to get things done quickly, and don’t be surprised—more efficiently.
Now, we all have our hobbies, from sports to craft to food; we otherwise call them our passion. Find time for these activities you enjoy. They may sound unproductive towards the work you need to do, but they’re not—because while doing these unrelated things, our minds will not switch off completely. Your subconscious continues to process and incubate until you suddenly achieve an actualisation, and go, “I have an idea!” Wasn’t that an easier way to get to the solution than to sit under your blanket for a week mulling over it?
Motivational guru Tony Robbins says, “Ten years from now you’ll laugh at whatever’s stressing you out today. So why not laugh now?” With these newfound perspectives, optimism, and drive, try this exercise:
I see <what is stressing you out> as an opportunity to <find something positive to say>, and I know I’ll get through this happier because <a passion-driven statement>.