Channel Stress into Excitement
Episode #6 of the course How to be good at stress by Dr. Kimberlee Bethany Bonura
Today, you’ll learn how to channel stress into excitement.
But first, one question: Do you think anyone in the history of the world ever calmed down because someone else said to them, “Just calm down”?
Consider situations when you feel butterflies in your stomach—perhaps you’re about to give a briefing at work or step outside your comfort zone in a recreational activity, like singing on stage, or a community activity, like speaking at a school board meeting. Those butterflies in your stomach indicate physiological arousal: Your heart is pumping. Your blood is rushing. You are breathing fast. Your muscles are contracting. You’ve got stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline coursing through you. You can’t “just calm down,” and the good news, you don’t need to. Research from Harvard Business School suggests that a much better strategy is to channel your high arousal into another, more positive, high arousal emotion—specifically, excitement.
So, Go Ahead, Get Excited!
The theoretical concept is “emotional congruency.” Your emotional experience needs to feel congruent with your physical experience. You can’t “calm down” when your body is feeling hyped up. That would be like trying to meditate on a roller coaster. But you can reappraise the emotional valence—shifting from nervous or worried to excited. It’s as simple as telling yourself: “I’m excited!” Say it over and over, “I’m excited, I’m excited, I’m excited!” and allow your tone and volume to match your level of excitement.
The same research from Harvard Business School shows that in a variety of settings, convincing yourself that you are excited (instead of nervous) leads to feelings of excitement, higher feelings of self-confidence, and even higher evaluations of successful achievement by evaluators. The positive attitude puts you in a can-do mood, and the stress-related hormones help you move faster and more efficiently. Research in the 2000s with American Special Forces troops found that those who had higher levels of noradrenaline during operations had better performance. Bottom line: Shifting from “nervous” to “excited” means you feel better and do better.
Consider Your Posture
While you’re working on feeling better and doing better, also think about how you’re standing (or sitting). Your posture affects your emotional well-being. Consider, for instance, research that reveals that slouching increases feelings of depression and low-energy. It’s not just that when you’re feeling sad, you slouch and slump—it’s that the posture of slouching and slumping exacerbates your sadness. In contrast, skipping down the hall boosts mood and energy. So, do you skip because you’re happy, or are you happy because you’re skipping?
The quintessential superhero question is: Does Superman stand like that (chest out, hands on hips) because he’s brave, or does he feel brave because he stands like that? According to Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, “Your body language may shape who you are,” it’s the latter: Your posture impacts how you feel and even shifts your hormonal profile. Our nonverbal communication affects how others perceive us, but more importantly, our own nonverbal communication affects how we perceive ourselves. When we stand strong, we feel strong.
Your task: Let’s put it into practice. Become aware of your posture as you sit, stand, and walk. You want to keep your chest open, which means rolling your shoulders down and back, creating space across the front of your body. You want to keep your weight evenly distributed, which means keeping your feet about hip-width apart for a neutral pelvis. In your exercise routine, look for strengthening exercises for your mid-back and stretching exercises for your chest. A great, simple strategy is relaxing in a gentle backbend over an exercise ball for two or three minutes. Focusing on a solid, open, strong posture also helps counteract the physical effects of slouching over electronic devices, so it brings physical benefits, as well as psychological ones.
Sit tall. Take a deep breath. Get excited! Hopefully, you’re feeling charged up and ready for your day.
Of course, sometimes, no matter how excited you get or how much you plan and prepare to fend off the things that scare you, bad things, like memory loss and health crises, happen. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about survival strategies for when stress is at its worst.
“Your body language may shape who you are”
Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy
Psychobiology of Stress: A Study of Coping Men by Holger Ursin
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