Changing your scope on stress
Is stress necessarily harmful to your health?

By: Mind - Stress - 3/16/2017

  • “Stress is the enemy” mindset - Even though your body’s stress response is a natural process to enhance your physical defenses and mental state to keep you safe from harm, many still believe that stress is the enemy.

Is stress necessarily harmful to your health?  It turns out that how you think about stress—your “stress mindset”—influences whether your psychological and physiological reactions to stress impact you positively or negatively.  Some evidence suggests those who not only experience lots of stress but also feel that it negatively affects their health have an almost 50% greater risk of premature death than those who report the same stress levels but don’t believe the stress has a negative impact.  In fact, the latter tend to have a much lower risk of death than those who report low levels of stress.

It isn’t realistic to suggest that life could ever be stress free, especially for operators, enablers, and their families.  However, although many are convinced that stress is bad, it actually can be good for you.  How you think about stress impacting your life can make the difference.

Stress Basics

Your body’s natural stress response helps keep you safe from threats and danger by signaling you to either stand your ground and fight or flee to safety.

This “fight-or-flight” response is valuable when activated for short periods:  your body mobilizes physiological and psychological resources to help you deal effectively with threats.  Your heart speeds up to pump more blood to your muscles, and your attention narrows so you can hone in on the threat and deal with it effectively and efficiently.  Your body delivers stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to energize you and dampen fear.

“Stress Is The Enemy” Mindset

Even though your body’s stress response is a natural process to enhance your physical defenses and mental state to keep you safe from harm, many still believe that stress is the enemy.  You might associate these physical and psychological sensations as harmful.  You might think, “Stress is bad for my health and well-being, so I should avoid it at all costs. It makes me weak.”

In some cases, the nervous emotions and physical sensations that come with stress actually become stressors themselves.  If you believe that stress is bad, you’re more likely to turn inward, isolate yourself, or avoid all challenges, depriving yourself of opportunities to learn.  This mindset can impact your physiology too.  For example, when your heart starts pumping harder, it’s likely to cause constriction and inflammation in your blood vessels.

“Stress Is An Ally” Mindset

On the flip side, another set of beliefs suggests stress can be your ally.  You might think, “Stress is good for me, so I should embrace it.  It might even improve my health and well-being.  Stress can make me stronger.”  Seeing your stress response this way enables you to use stress to build competence, strengthen social connections, and integrate lessons learned so that you can be better prepared for the future.

When your mindset befriends stress, the physiological impact is different too. For example, when your heart starts pumping harder—likely relaxing and reducing inflammation in your blood vessels—and mimicking the effects of exercise, which can help strengthen and boost your cardiovascular health.

Stress Mindset In Action

Operators and Enablers are probably familiar with strategies to make stress an ally already.  Your tactical training included how to understand and effectively manage your stress response.  While you might have a good handle on how to leverage stress in uniform, you (and your family) might not be applying the same concepts out of uniform.

Take the example of learning about your next permanent change of station move, a frequent stressor in the lives of operators, enablers, and their spouses and children.  What would change if you shifted your perspective of PCS from threat to opportunity?  Instead of feeling overwhelmed about moving your household goods, worrying about your children’s adjustment to their new school, and being far away from family, what if you made the conscious choice to view the situation as an opportunity?

Packing might finally give you the chance to get rid of clutter, downsize, and donate things to a community in need.  Your children might learn about a new culture and meet wonderful new friends and teachers. And being far from family might drive you to create new social connections.  A small shift in focus can make a big difference in how you manage the stress in your life.

Debrief

How you think about stress—your stress mindset—can mediate the impact of stress on your health and well-being.  When you think about stress as your ally rather than your enemy, you can train yourself and your family to experience more of the positive effects of the stress response. Chronic, uncontrollable stress can damage your physical and mental well-being. But for most other kinds of stress, your mindset matters. Take control of yours.

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