You’ve probably heard along the way that there is good stress (the kind that motivates you) and bad stress (the kind that paralyzes you). The trick is to know the difference and manage stress before it crosses that fine line where it begins to overwhelm and become destructive. Here are 10 ways to use healthy doses of anxiety to drive success and prevent stress from turning into an illness.
Rename anxiety and call it opportunity. Most of us think of anxiety as something to avoid, but it’s actually fuel for positive change. “Anxiety is a natural emotion that lives in the gap between where we are and where we want to be,” says Robert Rosen, PhD, founder of Healthy Companies International and author of Just Enough Anxiety: The Hidden Driver of Business Success. “We need to reframe how we look at anxiety. It’s not something to run away from, but something that can be used as productive energy.
A study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found that office workers who take a 15-minute stretch break feel calmer and more productive afterward. Try these desk stretches recommended by certified strength and conditioning specialist Bill Hartman:
Thoracic extension: Put your hands behind your head and bend your upper body over your chair’s back as far as possible. Draw your shoulder blades together and hold for two seconds. Release. Repeat eight times.
Hip-flexor stretch: Place one foot on a chair and lean forward while extending your arms overhead. Gently arch your back while moving your arms (keep them straight) back slightly. Hold for two seconds. Do eight reps.
Bad stress can be triggered by a sense of entitlement and helplessness. “Can you find ways, while you are so self-absorbed, to be considerate of the people who work for you?” asks psychologist Michael Kahn, PhD. Showing respect and appreciation for others has an amazing ability to defuse obsessive behavior and anxiety.
In 1929, some men were so consumed by their financial ruin that they jumped out of buildings. “Yet there were people who walked away from the terror of the Holocaust, moved ahead without a penny, and succeeded,” says Mel Schwartz, PhD, a psychotherapist in Westport, Connecticut. “A crisis is an opportunity to escape programmed living and transform yourself. The more creative and participatory you feel when forced outside of your comfort zone, the more balanced and happy you will ultimately be.”
When faced with a seemingly impossible challenge, immediately pinpoint at least one piece of the problem that you can control and then attack it. “When you shift into take-charge mode, you meet the challenge from a position of strength rather than feeling at its mercy,” says Kahn. This will buck up your confidence and set you on a path of action.
Sure, things look bleak out there, but hey, you’ve faced bleak before. “We have a much greater capacity to weather disappointment and change than we think we do,” says Giovanna Zerbi, PsyD, a clinical supervisor at the University of California at San Diego. Being mindful of your feelings and remembering how you triumphed over past setbacks can give you the confidence to face whatever may be lurking around the corner.
Make getting enough sleep and exercise a priority. Studies suggest that even a brisk 10-minute walk can reduce anxiety as well as a 45-minute gym workout, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. It comes down to discipline and planning. You schedule exercise as if it were a critical meeting with a client, which it is. You stop working at a reasonable hour, period.
Have you ever attempted to bench-press 250 pounds without having a gym buddy at the ready in case you couldn’t push the barbell off of your throat? The same goes for your life beyond the weight rack. “Successful men have friends they can lean on in times of need,” says Robert Maurer, PhD, a behavior scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine. “Our culture tends to value stoicism, self-reliance, and independence, but your mind naturally wants to draw strength from others.”
Securing balance in the three areas of your life–home, work, self–will create a buffer against stress. “If one goes down, you have two others to hold you up,” says Mounir Soliman, MD, of the University of California San Diego psychiatry department.
A preoccupation with comparing ourselves against our friends and rivals can easily get us into mental-health hot water. “People who have a problem with anxiety get lost in judging themselves,” says Schwartz. It’s a very Newtonian worldview. Schwartz says we measure to create order in our lives, but by doing so, we lose our humanity. “The critical voice is enslaving,” he says. “To escape, you need to accept yourself and like who you are.”