Like death and taxes, stress can’t be avoided completely. And if you're like most people, the word itself conjures some pretty negative connotations: sleepless nights, tension headaches, and a general sense of uneasiness—if not all-out anxiety.
But not all stress is bad, and if you know how to navigate your way around it and find healthy ways to channel it, it can actually help you. According to Dr. Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of The Stress Institute, the key lies in focusing more on information-gathering than eliminating stress entirely. Identify your own personal stressors and seek out the most effective way to approach, resolve or avoid them.
Here are just a few ways you can turn stress into a positive:
Make it a motivator.
Many of us do our best work when some measure of stress is involved. Evaluate your particular stressor and determine how to come out on top of it. Think proactively: What concrete steps can you take to alleviate the negative effects of your stress and instead use it to your advantage?
“What we know is that when people feel in control, it actually de-stresses,” Dr. Hall says. “Being in control makes us feel safe.”
If you're stressed about an upcoming project at work, for instance, set aside some extra time to plan, prepare and perfect so that your looming deadline won't seem so ominous. Use your anxiety to give you that extra push when you're feeling drained and want to leave it at “good enough.” You may be surprised by what you can accomplish.
Get to the bottom of it.
Stress can sometimes feel like an amorphous dark cloud hanging over your head, but if you can step back and evaluate its source, you may be surprised by what is actually bothering you.
For instance, if you were more overwhelmed by the holidays this year than usual, take a moment to think through why. You may find that what made you anxious is the thought of all the bills you were racking up—and the fact that you’re barely making ends meet as it is.
Understanding why you’re stressing out can help you get your priorities in line. If money woes are making you constantly anxious, you probably should invest more time and resources into getting your finances back on track.
Use it to commit to your healthy habits.
The best ways to combat stress also happen to be things that are generally good for your health. Dr. Hall identifies several with the acronym “SELF”: Serenity, Exercise, Love and Food. She recommends a healthy diet, exercise, social support and identifying something that soothes you, like soft music or nature.
“I don’t have the luxury of eating lots of fat and caffeine,” says Dr. Hall. “I already have a stressful life, so I make sure to eat foods that boost endorphins and contain serotonin and Omega-3s, things that are good for the brain.” (Check out our list of good-mood foods.)
Maybe the desire to squeeze into a smaller size has never compelled you to exercise, but knowing it may help banish stress will. Plus, maintaining healthy habits is another way to taking control of at least one area of your life, and help you better cope with the things that seem out of your control.