Before you read too far, we have a pop quiz for you!
It’s about stress, but it not stressful. You can even grade it yourself.
It's 2 questions that only require "Yes" or "No" answers.
1. Do you think stress is harmful and should be avoided?
Yes or No?
2. Do you think stress is helpful and should be embraced?
Yes or No?
Most people answer "Yes" to the first question and "No" to the second question.
We used to respond the same way. But now we think differently. You will think differently about stress after reading this too.
In fact, we think what you are about to read will forever change your life.
Table of Contents
In 1998, 30,000 adults in the United States took part in a study about stress. They completed a lengthy questionnaire about their health, family, job, diet, hobbies, and the stress they experienced in their lives.
At the end of the survey, they were asked:
“Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?”
Almost a decade later, researchers searched public records to find which of the 30,000 had died. Then they matched their names with their answers from they study.
The people who experienced higher levels of stress had a higher risk of dying.
But here’s the kicker:
That risk only increased when they believed stress was harmful to their health.
In fact, another group of people experienced high levels of stress BUT they did not believe stress was harmful to their health.
They actually had the lowest risk of dying.
This shocked the researchers.
After 10 years of research and studying the results, they came to a shocking conclusion:
Yes, stress kills, but the belief that stress is bad for you, kills you even quicker.
The researchers estimated that 20,000 more Americans die every year because they believe stress is harmful to their health!1
We first came across this study in 2011. A couple of us were ghostwriting blogs and books for popular health authors. Most of them, and most doctors, believed stress was the biggest underlying cause for almost every disease. (Most still believe this.)
We had spent years agreeing with them, writing about stress, and experimenting with a long list of relaxation techniques:
Music, breathing, meditation, sleeping, sleeping more, sleeping less, yoga, light exercise, heavy exercise, eating this, eating that, camping, glamping, weekend retreats, tropical vacations, staycations, different medications, and supplement after supplement after supplement.
To be honest, they worked...sometimes.
We found stress relief, but stress was still impossible to avoid.
This study gave us hope.
A new perspective:
Stress is an important part of living a long, meaningful life.
Instead of thinking something is wrong, stress actually shows us how much our activities and our relationships mean to us.
We stress about the things that matter.
Since the light bulb went off, we have reviewed too many studies and read stacks of different books about stress. We have learned about the history of stress, the biology of stress, and the evolving science of stress.
We found evidence for all the harmful effects of stress, but we also discovered a positive side of stress that is rarely recognized.
In fact, we think the positives outweigh the negatives.
So much so, that we changed our answers to the test questions above:
Do we think stress is harmful and should be avoided?
Do we think stress is helpful and should be embraced?
Sounds crazy right?
Give us five minutes to explain it and your life will change forever.
You will learn how to live with stress and, just maybe, learn how to love stress.
Think of it like this:
Embracing stress empowers you.
It helps you discover your own strength, courage, and compassion.
It helps you find more meaning in your life.
It helps you reach your most potential.
I'm So Stressed!
85% of Americans believe stress has a negative impact on health, family life, and work.2
How many times have you said, “I’m so stressed!” this year?
Probably too many to count.
How you think about stress affects every part of your life.
- Your thinking
- Your feelings
- Your decisions
- Your experiences
- Your potential
If you view stress as harmful, then stress becomes a signal to escape, run and avoid so many situations. This limits your experiences, your engagement, your connections, and your growth.
This limits your life.
Change your mind. Change your life.
But how do you change your mind about stress?
How do you go from thinking stress is harmful to believing stress is helpful?
We like to break it down into 4 steps.
Four steps to changing your mind about stress:
1. Recognize your relationship with stress.
2. Understand the biology of stress.
3. Know the history of stress.
4. Learn a new point of view.
What's Your Relationship With Stress?
The first step toward changing your mind about stress is noticing how stress shows up in your everyday life. Even if you are fully aware of what you think about stress, you probably do not realize how that belief affects your emotions, decisions, and actions.
The reasons for your stress are often disguised by distractions.
Write down your experiences with stress for a day or, even better, a week.
Notice how you think about stress.
- What thoughts do you have?
- What do you say to yourself?
- What do you say out loud?
Be aware how stress makes you feel.
- Does it motivate you?
- Exhaust you?
- Paralyze you?
Watch how you react to other people’s stress.
- How do you feel when people around you are stressed?
- What do you say to them? “Calm down” or “Stop”?
- Do you avoid people who are stressed?
Look for stress in the world around you.
- What messages do you receive about stress?
- What does your community think about stress?
- What does the media say about stress?
Hopefully, this self-reflection will answer the biggest question:
How does stress change your life?
A big part of the answer to this question is found in the biology of stress...
The Biology of Stress
When you feel stressed, you are really feeling your stress response.
Your stress response is a set of biological changes that helps you cope with stressful situations.
Your stress response jumps quickly into action for big things like a lion chasing you. It’s also triggered by small things like traffic, deadlines, or drama with family.
The moment you sense stress, it activates the hypothalamus – the part of your brain associated with emotions – to send warning signals to the pituitary gland and the adrenal medulla.
The adrenal medulla releases adrenaline. Most people are familiar with adrenaline. It puts your body on high alert. Your heart starts to pump faster. Your blood pressure rises. Your breathing gets faster. Sweat starts to flow.
Adrenaline gets you ready to react or run. Fight or flight.
While this is all going on, the pituitary gland is secreting adrenocorticotropic hormone, or ACTH. This tells the adrenal glands to release the hormones corticosteroid, or cortisol, and dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA.
Cortisol gets a bad rap these days.
This is because high levels of cortisol flowing through the body for an extended time can lower your energy, disrupt digestion, and crush your immune system, making you feel sick all the time. It can also shake up your blood sugar levels, causing irritability, moodiness, anxiety, and mild depression.
However, even with all that, cortisol is needed and helpful.
Cortisol can save your life.
Cortisol helps turn sugar and fat into energy for your brain and body to use. It sharpens your senses, while increasing your strength and stamina.
It also slows down some functions that are less important when you need to focus and run fast, like digestion. When a lion is chasing you, your body is more worried about being digested by the lion rather than digesting your lunch.
Thankfully, most stress does not involve lions.
Unfortunately, cortisol charges through your body, whether you are being chased by a lion or looking at a long to-do list.
To counter the effects of cortisol, your adrenals release DHEA.
DHEA helps balance the strong effects of cortisol.
DHEA is a neurosteroid. This means it helps your brain grow.
Just like testosterone helps your body grow stronger from physical exercise, DHEA helps your brain grow stronger from stressful experiences.
The ratio of DHEA to cortisol is called the growth index of a stress response.
A higher growth index – meaning more DHEA – helps people thrive under stress.
It predicts academic persistence in college students, as well as higher test scores and GPAs.3
In military training, a higher growth index has been associated with greater focus and superior problem-solving skills, as well as fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms afterward.4
Higher levels of DHEA have been further linked to a reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease, and neurological diseases.5
DHEA is one big reason why there is a positive side to stress.
Although the purpose of the stress response is to help you, it is more feared than appreciated. Most people think all stress is toxic, but the reality is not so bleak.
In many ways, the stress response is your best ally during difficult moments.
It’s just been given a bad name.
How Stress Got A Bad Name
Stress was never a medical term before 1936. There was never a way of measuring it. However, doctors knew there was something happening to the soldiers after World War I.
One of those doctors was Hans Selye.
Selye was a Hungarian physician who had many patients, especially soldiers, suffering from the same symptoms:
- Fever and sweating
- Fatigue and low energy
- Dizziness and vertigo
- Chest pains and high blood pressure
- Loss of appetite and nausea
Selye called it “sick syndrome.”
The interesting thing about Selye was, besides being a general physician, he was also an endocrinologist. So after seeing the same symptoms in so many soldiers with no clear diagnosis, Selye began to question their adrenal glands and hormones.
He began injecting lab rats with a hormone isolated from a cow’s ovaries. The results were nasty. The rats developed bleeding ulcers, swollen adrenal glands, and their lymph nodes shriveled.
At the same time, Selye injected a different group of rats with a salt solution. A control group.
To his surprise, those rats developed the same symptoms as the hormone group!
Then he injected a different group with extracts made from a cow’s kidneys and spleens. And those rats developed the same symptoms as the first hormone group!
In fact, anything he injected the rats with made them sick the same way.
Selye determined the rats weren’t getting sick from what they were injected with. They were getting sick from what they were experiencing.
Their feelings made them sick.
Selye took it even further:
He exposed them to extreme heat and cold. He forced them to exercise for hours without rest. He blasted them with noise. He gave them toxic drugs in low doses.
After just two days, the rats to lost muscle tone, developed ulcers, and their immune systems declined to the point that they all died.
Selye discovered the rats would develop the same symptoms every time they were put through an uncomfortable experience.
This is how the science of stress was born.6
After his years of experimenting, Selye released a paper on stress in 1936. Selye chose the word “stress” to describe both what he was doing to the rats (stressing them out) and how their bodies reacted (the stress response).
He hypothesized that life’s challenges weakened the body.
He took it even further by declaring that many conditions plaguing humans, from allergies to heart attacks, were the result of stress.
He defined stress as “the response of the body to any demand made on it and the range of potential sufferers included all of humanity.”
It was a massive statement that still pushes a fear of stress today.
Selye spent the rest of his career speaking about stress. He taught physicians and scientists about stress. He became known as the Grandfather of Stress and was nominated for the Nobel Prize ten times!
However, his image and influence were tarnished in 2011 when an investigation revealed the tobacco industry paid him for years to suggest smoking was a healthy way to prevent the harmful effects of stress.7
The sad irony is Selye labeled smoking as healthy, while calling all stress toxic.
We now know the smoking part was completely wrong.
But was Selye wrong?
Was his statement too broad?
Let’s be real:
There is ample scientific evidence showing how severe stress can harm your health.
However, Selye defined stress so broadly that he included not just trauma, violence, and abuse, but also everything else that happens to you.
As if stress is the same as the body’s only natural response to life.
Eventually, Selye recognized that not all stressful experiences will give you ulcers.
He tried to clarify his definition of stress in the 1970s when he said:
“There is always stress, so the only point is to make sure that it is useful to yourself and useful to others.”
Unfortunately, it was 40 years too late.
Selye’s work had already created a general fear about stress in the general public and the medical community.8
Hans Selye wasn’t the only doctor to give stress a bad name.
You can also blame Walter Cannon, who actually researched stress before Selye.
Cannon first described the fight-or-flight response in 1915.
He was a physiologist at Harvard Medical School who was interested in how fear and anger affected animals. His favorite methods for making his animals angry and scared included “covering the cat’s mouth and nose with the fingers until a distress of breathing is produced” and putting cats and dogs in a room together to fight.9
Cannon observed that animals release adrenaline when threatened.
Their hearts race. Their breathing quickens. Their muscles tighten. Their digestion slows.
They prepare to survive.
The fight-or-flight survival instinct has saved many lives, both animals and humans. It has been conserved by nature for this reason. We should be happy it is built into our DNA.
However, there is a big difference between animals and humans, and a lab and a living room.
Fighting and running for survival do not imitate the coping strategies that humans deal with every day.
You can’t punch heavy traffic. You can’t fight a dirty house.
What would your life be like if you ran from a job every time things got hard?
The research doesn’t fit the reality.
Unfortunately, this is why many health experts believe the stress response was only helpful to our ancestors. As if only a life-threatening emergency should need a stress response.
They see stress as psychological flaw. They encourage people to stifle it and keep it under control.
If a full-throttle fight-or-flight response is the only stress to feel, then what is everything else?
Feeling stressed because you are late to pick up your kids from school Is not a flaw.
You get stressed when something important to you is at stake.
The stressful feelings are there to help you. Fleeing and fighting are not the only stress strategies your body supports.
As humans have evolved, so has our stress response. It still helps you run from a lion, but it also helps you face more minor challenges and learn from stressful experiences.
Stress Helps You Face Challenges
When your survival is not on the line and the stress is less threatening, the brain and body shift into a different state:
The challenge response.
Like a fight-or-flight response, a challenge response gives you energy and helps you perform under pressure.
Remember how your body responds to stress:
- Your liver dumps fat and sugar into your bloodstream for fuel.
- Your breathing deepens so that more oxygen is delivered to your heart.
- Your heart rate speeds up to deliver the oxygen, fat, and sugar to your muscles and brain.
- Your hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, help your muscles and brain take in and use that energy more efficiently.
- Your adrenaline wakes up your senses as your pupils dilate to let in more light and your hearing sharpens.
This part of the stress response can give you extraordinary physical abilities, including faster running, higher jumping, and even freakish strength.
A good example is In 2013, two teenage girls in Oregon raised a 3,000 pound tractor off their father. “I don’t know how I lifted it. It was just so heavy, but we just did it,” one of the girls described it. 10
Remember how your brain responds to stress:
- Your brain processes what you perceive more quickly.
- Your mind stops wandering and the less important priorities drop away.
- You enter a state of concentration and full attention.
- You become hyper aware of your surrounding environment.
When you think about it, these changes should be seen as advantages when your life isn’t on the line.
A challenge response differs from a fight-or-flight response in four big ways:
1. Instead of being used to fight or flee, your endorphins, adrenaline, testosterone, and dopamine become a potent rush of confidence and motivation.
This chemical cocktail helps you feel more focused and less fearful. You are more willing to take risks to pursue your goals. Researchers call this the “excite and delight” side of stress. It’s been observed in skydivers falling out of planes. You also feel it when you fall in love.11
2. A challenge response puts you into a flow state, concentrating and completely absorbed in what you are doing.
Contrary to what many people think, top performers are not usually that calm under pressure. Many artists, athletes, musicians, gamers, and even surgeons have strong challenge responses when they are engaged in their skill. However, the best are able to access their mental and physical resources for greater confidence, concentration, and performance.
3. You recover much faster from a challenge stress response than a fight-or-flight situation.
Regardless if the outcome is good or bad, it’s easier to calm down from a stressful challenge than a life-threatening experience.
4. You are more likely to learn from a challenge response to stress.
A life-threatening situation is more likely to create an unwanted memory. Something to be buried or forgotten.
A stressful challenge creates resilience. It makes you stronger as you remember the experience. This learning is attributed to the higher levels of DHEA that a challenge response creates. DHEA helps you determine whether a stressful experience is strengthening or harmful.12
Ultimately, growth is the biggest plus side to stress.
Stress Helps You Learn and Grow
After an intense and stressful situation, the body begins to calm down and return to normal. But the brain keeps working.
After the initial rush to your body, stress hormones absorb into the brain regions that support learning and memory.
Think of what you usually do after a stressful situation:
You replay the experience over and over again in your mind. You can’t stop thinking about the order of events and the results.
If the outcome was good, you try to remember everything you did. If it was bad, you play out other possible outcomes.
Your emotions are still running high. With the stress hormones flooding your brain, you can start to shock, anger, fear, guilt, or relief, joy, and gratitude.
You are learning from the experience and giving it meaning.
Psychology calls this "stress inoculation" because it’s like a stress vaccine for your brain.
It makes you smarter.
It makes you stronger.
It makes you more flexible.
Challenging stress makes you more resilient.13
That’s why soldiers, firefighters, astronauts, and athletes practice and train under pressure, so they can be ready when stress strikes.
Here’s the kicker to all of this:
If you believe stress can make you a better person, then it’s easier to face new challenges.
In fact, research shows that “viewing a stressful situation as an opportunity to improve your skills, knowledge, or strengths makes it more likely that you will have a challenge response instead of a fight-or-flight response,” and you will grow from the experience.14
Choose Your Stress Response
There is more than one way to view and experience stress.
But what determines the stress response you have in any given moment?
There are three main factors:
1. Your past influences how you respond to stress.
Your past, present, and future are linked through memories. Your past experiences with stress shape how you will respond to stress in the future.
Research shows that people, who have had a life-threatening illness in their youth and were dependent upon parents, doctors, and adults, will rely more on others during stressful times when they are older. In contrast, adults who were abused during childhood are less likely to trust others in stressful situations.15
2. Your health influences how you respond to stress.
There is a clear relationship between your health and your stress response.
Unfortunately, it can be a cruel cycle:
The everyday stress at home and work drains you physically and mentally. Your search for energy and happiness leads to more sugary sweets, fatty snacks, and caffeine. But the quick buzz brings a hard crash and the carbs weigh you down. Too tired for exercise, so you reach for more caffeine and sugar to stay awake after lunch. This only keeps you up too late, losing sleep, waking up groggy, starting the cycle again.
This day-in-and-day-out schedule of bad food, no exercise, and poor sleep leads to high levels of stress…which makes life at work and home even more stressful.
There are tons of medical studies showing this.16,17
In 2017, The Global Benefits Attitudes Survey from Willis Tower Watson revealed:
61% of people with high levels of stress eat poorly, exercise less, and suffer from a lack of sleep regularly.
“A clear relationship exists between stress and unhealthy lifestyles,” said Mike Blake, Wellbeing Lead for Willis Towers Watson.18
The best stress remedy for most people is regular deep sleep.
Besides resting and restoring the body, good sleep helps regulate mood, improve concentration, and sharpen decision-making.
A healthy diet helps tame stress too.
Some foods boost serotonin, a calming brain chemical, while other foods cut down cortisol and adrenaline levels. A healthy diet also strengthens your immune system lowers blood pressure to keep you moving forward at full speed.
If you are looking for the rights foods to lower stress, then you should also consider certain supplements that can fight stress with no side effects. There are many minerals and plants that help your mind and body cope with stress better.
Our favorite supplement for fast stress relief is lithium orotate.
Lithium orotate helps to balance neurotransmitters and stress hormones to keep the mind calm when stress is on the horizon.19 A little bit makes a big difference. Lithium orotate also does wonders for sleeping deeply, so we included it in CHILL.
Our favorite supplement for full-body stress relief is magnesium.
Magnesium is widely known to help ease muscle tension and cramping, but it also triggers serotonin, the “feel good” hormone, boosts the calming effects of GABA, and pushes the natural production of melatonin to help you fall asleep when you should at night.20 It's the ultimate calm supplement. We included it in CHILL.
Our favorite supplement for all day stress relief is l-theanine.
L-theanine reduces stress and anxiety by stimulating the brain’s production of alpha waves, which help you feel relaxed but alert. L-theanine is a natural amino acid extracted from green tea leaves. But too much green tea can make it hard to sleep at night, so we take CHARGE get that l-theanine focus whenever we need it without the caffeine.21
Our favorite supplement for long-lasting stress relief is ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha has been proven to reduce stress by making you more flexible and resilient to stress.22 The hype is real about ashwagandha. It really works to lower stress but it can take up to a month of daily use to feel its benefits. We included it in CHARGE.
3. Your genetics influence how you respond to stress.
Your genetic profile shapes how stress affects you.
Some people are born more resilient to stress and they react less in stressful situations. Some people are born with genes that predispose them to enjoy an adrenaline rush, so they actually seek out stressful stimulation.23
Other people are more sensitive to stress. This raises the likelihood of depression and anxiety, but it also supports more compassion and personal growth.24
The good thing is none of these genetic differences are destiny. Your life experiences and conscious choices are more important than genetics. Your brain and body reshape themselves after every new challenge.25
Life is about growth and the best teacher is experience.
Stress is designed to help you learn from experience.
You have already been teaching your body and brain how to react to stress based on your past experiences.
However, that means your stress response can be shaped through deliberate practice.
When you feel stress, ask yourself:
Do I need to fight, escape, engage, connect, find meaning, or grow?
Focus on how you want to respond, not how you expect yourself to respond.
You can "practice" the response you want by focusing on a recent stressful experience. Maybe an argument, or a problem at work, or even a serious health scare. Really try to remember the stress you felt...
- How did your body change? Sweaty palms? Faster heart? Quicker thinking?
- Did you feel more energy?
- Were you motivated to act?
- Were you motivated to protect and defend something you care about?
- What did you do?
- How did you feel afterward?
You might think the sweaty palms, hyper energy, and rumination afterward means you weren’t handling the stress well. It was actually your body and brain working to help you cope.
Now pick the worst part of the experience that you want to change.
- Did you overthink and overreact?
- Did you say the wrong thing?
- Did you take the wrong action?
- How would you respond differently next time?
It can be hard to admit your own mistakes. Try to think of this evaluation as growth.
If you frame your stress around growth, then every stressful experience defines your future.
In this sense, your stress is giving your life meaning.
Stress Gives Life Meaning
Stress is more than just a basic survival instinct.
It makes you human.
It’s your feelings. Your emotions. Your actions.
It’s how you operate. It’s how you navigate the world.
It’s how you live your life.
When you understand this, stress is no longer something to be feared.
Stress should be appreciated, embraced, and even trusted.
Stress gives life meaning.
It’s worth repeating:
We stress the most about things that matter the most to us.
- We get stressed when goals are on the line – and we take action.
- We get stressed when our values are threatened – and we defend them.
- We get stressed when we need courage – and we reach for it.
- We get stressed when we make mistakes – and we learn from them.
A recent Stanford study asked U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 78 to agree or disagree with this statement:
“Taking all things together, I feel my life is meaningful.”
The researchers then asked a series of questions to find out what made a life meaningful.
The biggest surprise:
Stress ranked very high.
In fact, people who had experienced the highest number of stressful life events were most likely to consider their lives meaningful.
In other words:
Stress makes life meaningful.
The researchers concluded:
“People with very meaningful lives worry more and have more stress than people with less meaningful lives.”26
The United States isn’t alone in this thinking:
62% of adults in Canada believe work is their biggest source of stress.27
34% of adults in the U.K. think having a baby is the most stressful experience of their lives.28
This makes sense.
Try this simple exercise to find out if the stress in your life is meaningful to you:
1. Make a list of the most meaningful people in your life.
Include their names.
2. Add the most meaningful activities in your life.
Include your job and hobbies.
3. Add your most meaningful goals.
This could include getting a better job, getting better test scores, getting married, having a baby, or anything that is big-picture, meaningful to you.
4. Draw a HEART next to each that gives you love, laughter, learning, or a sense of purpose.
5. Draw a + next to each experience that is sometimes or frequently stressful.
See a pattern?
Do most, if not all, of the things on your list have a HEART and a + next to them?
Why are stress and meaning so strongly linked?
Stress is a consequence of love, trust, intimacy, passion, and the pursuit of goals.
Stress fuels your sense of purpose.
This works in your favor and can actually help you live longer.
Many studies show that people who have a sense of purpose live longer.29
So maybe stress is not always harmful for your health and happiness.
It definitely shouldn’t be feared.
And yet, most people wish for a life without stress.
The irony in all of this is most of the negative outcomes associated with stress are the results of trying to avoid it.
Just think of the experiences and opportunities you have missed because you thought they would be too stressful.
Avoiding stress leads to isolation, anxiety, and depression.
A large study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs followed 1,000 adults for 10 years. Those who tried to avoid stress were more likely to become depressed over the following decade. They also experienced more conflicts at work and at home.30
Avoiding stress changes how you view life.
Stress is seen as the problem instead of the path to a solution. So you stop pursuing your goal.
Avoiding stress changes how you view yourself.
Stress can make you feel inadequate and doubt yourself:
“If you were strong enough, smart enough, or good enough, then you wouldn’t be stressed.”
This doesn’t matter as much if you understand the connection between stress and a meaningful life.
So next time you feel nervous before a big event, embrace the stress. Tell yourself you’re excited because it’s important, your heart is in it, and it’s meaningful.
Stress doesn’t have to be a sign to stop and give up on yourself.
It’s just the opposite.
Those sweaty palms, pumping heart, and anxious feelings are there to push you forward. Stop looking at them and look past them.
Your body and brain are telling you it’s time to recognize your strength and access your courage.
So is stress bad for you?
Only when you feel it is out of your control.
When you accept it and embrace it, stress becomes a different experience:
Doubt is replaced by confidence. Fear becomes courage. Suffering gives rise to meaning.
And all without getting rid of the stress.
That’s the plus side of stress.