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The Upside of Stress

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By Sajan George, the founder and chief executive officer of Matchbook Learning

Imagine you are about to make the most important presentation of your professional career to the largest and most influential audience you have ever been in front of. Ten minutes before you go up, your body begins a familiar dance of nervousness. Your palms are sweaty. Your heart rate is rising. Your stomach feels slightly queasy. What should you do? Tell yourself to calm down and perhaps try some slow-breathing exercises?

We've all been in similar situations before, and if we're honest, most "attempts" to eliminate or even reduce stress in the moment are frankly futile. Perhaps we should cultivate a mindset to embrace stress. Watch professional athletes when their names are announced before kickoff to the Superbowl or a tipoff for basketball playoffs. They are usually hyping themselves up, embracing and channeling the nervous energy for peak performance that is already present in their bodies. Why do we feel we have to do the opposite in other vocations?

Health psychologist, Stanford lecturer, and author Kelly McGonigal shares some fascinating research in her book The Upside of Stress and her TED talk on How to Make Stress Your Friend. In a landmark study, 30,000 adults in the United States were asked how much stress they had experienced in the past year and whether they believed stress is harmful to their health. These adults were then followed for eight years in the study. As we probably could have guessed, high levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. However, what was shocking was that increased risk only applied to people who believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but did not view it as harmful had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported very little stress. It wasn't stress that was killing people, but the combination of stress and the belief that it is harmful.

If any of us thinks back to the most meaningful moments in our life, undoubtedly they are moments that were pregnant with stress. We do not stress about things we do not care about. We stress about things that matter to us—when something important is at stake. Our body's signals of stress (increased heart rate, sweaty palms, etc.) is the body's way of preparing you to engage in something important. A life without stress is a life without meaning.

Not all stress is equal though, and clearly some forms of stress are completely undesirable. However, I am struck by how many kinds of undesirable forms of stress children in poverty face both from their own bad choices but also from circumstances they did not choose or have control over. When we serve them in our schools, how do we handle and help children handle the stress they cannot control?

McGonigal suggests three steps in changing your mindset and embracing (rather than trying to avoid) stress:

  1. Notice stress and how it affects your body.  

  2. Recognize stress as a response to something you care about.

  3. Don't try and manage stress but think about what you can do right now that reflects your goals and values and write about them and share it with someone.  

McGonigal says that if we allow it, stress will awaken human strengths of courage, connection, and growth.  

We know that in stressful circumstances, we are motivated to act bravely and overcome our fears.  

I'll bet that when something stressful happens to you, one of the first things you'll do is pick up the phone and call a spouse, significant other, or family member to talk about it. Our bodies and minds crave social connection when we are stressed.

If children are nervous and stressed before a big test, that's good. Their body is getting ready for peak performance. They will perform higher and better if they embrace that energy than if they were in a completely relaxed state like say just after a nap.  

The latest neuroscience is revealing that children in poverty who have high ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) scores are in a constant state of stress. When they arrive through our school doors, the physical effects of stress (accelerated heart rates, etc.) can be seen. In fact, our staff now have become accustomed to identifying early when a child is going to a have challenging day usually before the child is even aware of it.  

Perhaps we can build a mindset to embrace these positive elements of stress—increased courage, connection, and growth potential to leverage these stresses not as deficits but as potential powerful assets. Stress has an upside. We must build the mindset to embrace it.

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