The power of positive stress: how to turn your anxieties into superpowers

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Brain freeze: taking a cold shower is a form of ‘positive stress’  (Getty Images/Cultura RF)
Brain freeze: taking a cold shower is a form of ‘positive stress’ (Getty Images/Cultura RF)

Feeling stressed and anxious can be overwhelming at the best of times, particularly in light of events over the past 18 months.

But what if you flipped your approach towards stress on it’s head? After all, not all stress is negative.

Long-term or chronic stress, say from an extremely high-pressured job, is bad for us. But short-term stress, or “positive stress,” caused by a challenge which takes you out of your comfort zone, like taking on a promotion or doing an intense workout, can help improve your mental resilience.

Defining stress

There are different interpretations, says neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart, who differentiates between “stress,” which she defines as “when the load on you (physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually) is more than you can bear,” and “rising to meet the challenge”.

“Chronic stress is never good for you, even at low levels,” Swart says. “But times of challenge like giving a talk or doing a sporting event, asking someone on a date, helping a friend go through a really tough time, for example, can elicit the acute stress response which is not fright/fight/flight but involves you rising to meet the challenge and fully recovering your resilience afterwards — things like this make us more resilient over time.”

There is a point at which stress becomes counter-productive. “We certainly don’t want people operating under significant stress in a prolonged sense,” offers Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya, consultant psychiatrist and head of the clinical board at Chelsea-based mental health and wellness centre The Soke. “But if one can harness stress in a very specific and short-term way, there can be benefits to both our physical and mental health.”

One example of how short-term stress can enhance performance is in the context of productivity around deadlines. “We can be much more efficient in a shorter timeframe,”he says. While another can be seen in the sporting world, for example, the fear of losing can sometimes drive improved performance.

Dr Wendy Suzuki giving a TED talk that has since been viewed over 10 million times (Ryan Lash / TED)
Dr Wendy Suzuki giving a TED talk that has since been viewed over 10 million times (Ryan Lash / TED)

Train your brain

Dr Wendy Suzuki, professor of neural science and psychology at New York University, argues in her book, Good Anxiety: harnessing the power of the most misunderstood emotion, that feelings of anxiety can enhance your life. It’s all based around the concept of neuroplasticity, or the idea that “put into certain situations, the brain can grow and get stronger and more resilient,” she explains. “Put in the wrong environment it can shrink and become less resilient. PTSD is a great example of this.”

How can anxiety become positive? “We have this misconception that negative emotions are to be avoided at all costs, but to be able to appreciate the good times, you need to have a negative contrast,” Suzuki says. “We need to be able to fail and have things not work out for us to really appreciate when things do work.”

Anxiety is at its heart a brain activation, a motivator and a protective mechanism

Dr Wendy Suzuki

She continues: “Anxiety is at its heart a brain activation, a motivator and a protective mechanism.” Take public speaking, “I’ve learnt to use the butterflies in my stomach to make myself perform at another level - if I had Netflix-on-the couch attitude before I gave a speech, I would give a terrible talk. But I’m a ball of energy because I use that fear and anxiety to my advantage.”

Suzuki should know, a TED talk she gave on the brain-changing benefits of exercise has now been viewed over 10 million times. In her book she presents a guide to flipping the way you think about your anxieties to use them to your advantage, and leverage them into so-called “superpowers.”

The power of cold

High-flying Silicon Valley tech types use daily “positive stress” practices, like taking cold showers, hot yoga classes and fasting regimes, to help them work harder for longer. Zachary Rapp told CNBC in 2018 his regime helped him “push through an inhuman amount of work” while juggling three health tech startups.

Taking things one step further than a cold shower is Wim Hof, aka The Iceman (@iceman_hof), who featured in Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Netflix series. He holds world records for withstanding freezing temperatures and is evangelical about cold exposure. He even has Joe Wicks taking daily ice baths now. Hof believes that regular exposure to icy temperatures can reduce your response to other life stressors.

4 ways to practise positive stress

Take it slow (initially)

Want to get used to putting yourself out of your comfort zone again? When it comes to returning to work and social situations, Dr Obuaya recommends a gradual approach to begin with. “Identify the habits you would like to develop on a scale of easy to very challenging. Start with the easier things and build up.”

Take an ice-cold shower

Start your day with an icy shower. Besides hopefully reducing your response to stressful situations, it has been linked to enhanced mood and healthy immune functioning. Head to wimhofmethod.com for free resources.

Learn something new

Ever studied so hard your brain hurts? That’s a form of positive stress, according to Dr Suzuki. “It should be effortful as you learn as you’re growing new connections.” Make a conscious effort to reinstate some learning into your life.

Power through a high-intensity workout

While you don’t want to be HIIT-ing it up every day, there’s a time and a place for high-intensity exercise. “A high-intensity workout is a form of positive stress that rewards you with a natural high,” explains Dr Obuaya. “You know it’s going to be a challenge, that you’re going to push through that barrier, but it’ll reward you with those endorphins and feel-good factor.”

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