Turn stress from an enemy into a friend

It’s 10 a.m., and your to-do list hasn’t shrunk. In fact, you’ve only added to it since the emails and calls started rolling in. Make stress your friend? It’s the enemy you can’t escape!

Surprising research indicates that your relationship with stress matters more than your level of stress. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin made a fascinating discovery. U.S. adults who thought they had high levels of stress and that stress was bad for them had a 43% greater chance of early death. Remarkably, those who reported high stress but who regarded stress as harmless had the lowest mortality rate.

Stress isn’t your enemy; it’s what you think of stress that determines its impact on your longevity, quality of life, and happiness. After all, stress is nothing more than your response to some internal or external demand.

Befriending stress — or at least, making peace with stress — is easier said than done. Changing a belief that has been built and reinforced over years and even decades isn’t a snap. Some beliefs become so ingrained that they’re automatic.

A simple way to change such established thinking is by practicing mindfulness. By focusing on the present with curiosity, we open up our minds to explore and embrace new thoughts, including the idea that stress doesn’t have to be harmful.

College students who learned how to practice mindfulness reported significantly fewer negative thoughts and were able to dismiss these thoughts more easily than before they had tried mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness also improves your emotional state, making it easier to entertain and sustain positive attitudes in difficult situations. Indeed, we can find ourselves viewing situations that generate stress as opportunities for growth rather than threats.

Give mindfulness practice a try (instructions below) for a few minutes a day for two weeks and see what difference it makes with stress. You might make a new friend in the process.

Mindfulness practice

  1. Find a quiet place to sit for 10 minutes each day. Close your eyes. Sit with your spine straight, away from the back of the chair if possible, and your head upright but your shoulders relaxed.
  2. For the next 10 minutes pay attention to the physical sensations that come and go in your body, particularly sensations in your lower abdomen caused by your breathing, as well as the thoughts and emotions that come and go in your mind and any sounds that you might hear.
  3. There’s no need to try to make anything happen, to stop anything from happening, or to judge yourself for whatever you are or are not doing.
  4. When you end your practice, tell yourself to bring this nonjudgmental awareness of yourself and your environment into the rest of your day.

How did the mindfulness trial go? What differences did you notice? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Ed Maxwell, M.B.A. and M.Ed., is cofounder of Third Left Wellness LLC, which offers onsite mindfulness training to businesses in order to enhance employee effectiveness. Connect with him at ed.maxwell@3rdlw.com.

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