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Stress for the Best?

Updated: Feb 19, 2019

Retta Karpinski

Everyone feels stressed. Right now, you could be skimming and scanning, trying to get the gist so you can move on to bigger, better, more productive things in your increasingly hectic life. Homework piles up, responsibilities loom, and activities materialize incessantly on your schedule. Then guilt weasels its way in because--even with all these responsibilities and activities--you’re not doing everything you want to. “It’s an endless cycle that makes you really want to die,” says Shanon Lee, class of 2019.

High school--and junior year especially--is a rollercoaster of headaches, hand cramps, and expectations, but also of youthful invincibility and euphoric independence just beyond the clutches of parental supervision. It’s no wonder that this dichotomy of highs and lows spawns a nervous cycle of what-if-I’m-not-good-enough and oh-god-what-am-I-doing and sad-whimpering-in-public-spaces-because-who-cares-at-this-point. Society whispers to us that if we just push a little harder, seem a little smarter, stress a little more, the tides will turn in our favor and we will finally be successful.

So you breathe and tell yourself that you can do it, but everything seems like too much and you end up sitting there, on your phone, watching Netflix, scrolling through Instagram, Googling your own name, endlessly clicking on Youtube videos (e.g. obscure vine compilations on your Recommended) because it’s easy and comfortable. Or maybe, instead, you stress and stress and stress until your stressor is sore (i.e. until you’re coughing up a fit all over your Bio exam) and you’re completely burnt out.

But there is a solution, a twist, to this messy business of stress. It’s free and accessible to anyone willing to try! Available any time! It goes as follows: the next time you feel stress weighing on you, affecting your sleep and temperament, think to yourself “Wow, this stress will help me perform better.”

Reframe the stress.

Here’s why: Stress didn’t come to existence to make our lives miserable. Evolution-wise, stress activated our sympathetic nervous system, elevated our heart rates and adrenaline, in order to help us survive. Knowing that stress is built into our wiring can help us utilize it. Whether you’re at the starting line of a race, in the front of class, staring at the first question on an exam, or about to go on stage for a speech, your heart rate rises, your pupils dilate, and everything feels heightened. Believe it or not, these autonomic nerves can actually increase your performance. The only thing holding you back is your mindset.

When we perceive an obstacle as a threat (I’m going to fail this test and never get into college and end up like Doug!) our blood flow is reduced and inflammation increases. However, when we perceive something as a challenge (wow, this is hard but I’ve studied and I’ve faked my way through things like this before), we get higher blood flow to the brain. Kelly McGonigal (the top researcher in stress and *ahem* no relation to Maggie Smith) reiterates this in her Ted Talk (which you can watch here). She says that changing your mindset about stress changes your body’s reaction to it.

Researcher Alison Wood Brooks asked a group of adults to perform a speech. She told half the group to say “I am calm” before the speech and the other group to say “I am excited.” A group of judges found that the people who said “I am excited” seemed more persuasive, competent, confident, and persistent.

So we know that we should reframe our stress. But what does that mean?

The first thing to do is to know your signs of stress and call them out. When you notice your hands getting sweaty, your breath thinning, or whatever your own signs of stress are, point it out. Say to yourself Okay, I’m feeling stressed right now, but it’s going to help me perform better. It’s simple and easy and worth it.

Remember these simple steps (BARB) to a healthier, stress-utilizing life:


Acknowledge your stress.

Reframe your stress.

Be kind to yourself.

One last thing: the stress paradox. A study out of Stanford and FLU showed that people who lead more meaningful lives tend to stress out more. So congratulations! If you’re stressed, your life is meaningful!


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