When someone tells you “I’m stressed,” your response is probably a sympathetic, “I’m sorry.” We’ve been taught that stress makes us feel anxious, worried, or tense. And it does make us feel those things, but let’s put that aside for now, because those feelings aren’t the only outcome of stress.
In fact, stress is vital for our personal and creative growth. Stress is a change agent; it’s what turns carbon into diamonds and caterpillars into butterflies, and it can have the same transformative effect on people.
Here are few things that stress can do for you:
Stress can… push you to achieve
People naturally take the path of least resistance. If we don’t have to work hard to overcome something, we’re not going to seek new challenges. Think of a time when a teacher, mentor or parent criticized you. Did you let them convince you that your work was worthless, or did you try to prove them wrong? If you made the second choice, you’ve used stress in a way that pushed you to achieve.
Stress can… teach you what is meaningful
No one likes to think about illness or death, but both of those stressors have a way of crystalizing life’s true meaning. Sometimes they can even galvanize you to act in an entirely new direction. I spent my four years of high school battling thyroid cancer, and while it certainly wasn’t fun, it gave me a strong understanding of the people and experiences that truly matter, and taught me never to waste time or opportunities.
Stress can… make your body healthier
Whether you’re doing cardio, stretching, or lifting weights, you are putting stress on your body. The act of forming muscle or making limbs more flexible is a challenge to your physical being. But that challenge prompts your body to gather forces that literally strengthen the area you’ve exercised. Each successive exercise makes you stronger and healthier.
Stress can… make your mind healthier
Anything that opens or pushes your brain, whether it be a creative pursuit like writing or painting, or something more concrete like mathematics or puzzles, stresses your mind. But all of those things are necessary to keep your brain healthy and active. They’ve even been attributed to longevity.
Stress can…. affect change in the world
Without stress on our society, we are not prompted toward change. Who isn’t stressed over the current divisiveness of our political climate these days? The key is to take that stress and channel it in constructive ways, like committing to acts of kindness, or having thoughtful conversations about issues that matter.
Let’s go back to the negative products of stress: the anxiety, the tension, the depression. These are real effects, and should be taken seriously. If you’re feeling stressed, treat your body and mind with care. Get enough rest, and eat healthy foods. Take breaks to do relaxing things that you love. Use journaling to express your feelings. Try meditation, light therapy, or using essential oils. And make sure to talk about your stress and the feelings it causes with a therapist, or at least a trusted friend. Keeping a positive outlook on the ways the stress might change and grow you as a person can also help with the negative effects.
I think there should be another word for stress in the English language, one that has a positive connotation, so that we don’t get completely caught up in the difficult feelings it causes us. (The term “eustress” is supposed to have this meaning, but it’s not different enough from “stress” to remove the stigma, and also isn’t used widely outside academia.) Since I don’t have my “invent a new word” magic wand on me, I’ll just have to encourage you to think of stress differently. The next time someone says to you, “I’m stressed,” tell them, “That’s great! Maybe you’re about to turn into a butterfly.”
Leanne Sowul is a writer and teacher from the Hudson Valley region of New York. She’s the curator of the website Words From The Sowul and authors the “Be Well, Write Well” column for DIY MFA. She writes historical/literary fiction and memoir; her work is represented by Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary Agency. Connect with her at leannesowul(at)gmail(dot)com, or on Twitter @sowulwords.