A Simple Phrase That Could Change How Stress Impacts You

Written by: Jennifer L. Taitz, PsyD


Published on: February 1, 2024

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Photo courtesy of Megan Rogers/Stills.com

Jennifer L. Taitz, PsyD is a licensed clinical psychologist. Her latest book, Stress Resets: How to Soothe Your Body and Mind in Minutes, is out now (and excerpted here).

The goal of my book Stress Resets is not to get rid of stress entirely. That’s impossible, because stress is part of the price we pay for living a life that matters. As Dr. Roy Baumeister, a renowned social psychologist and professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, describes, “Meaningful involvements increase one’s stress.” Think about it: To design a life with zero stress, you’d have to shrink the scope of what you do, willfully denying life’s realities and avoiding anything remotely challenging. In other words, you’d have to lead a life that was boring and detached—and depressing. Moderate exposure to stress and hardship is actually good for us, boosting resilience. After extensive research, Dr. Mark Seery, a professor at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, writes, “A history of some lifetime adversity predicts better outcomes than a history of high adversity and a history of no adversity.”

In other words, all of us can use stress to evolve and grow, despite its terrible reputation. That starts with looking at it as a normal, often helpful reaction to anticipating or facing obstacles as you pursue your goals, which I pointed out to Laurie [a former client]. She also tended to stress about her stress, beating herself up with questions like What’s wrong with me? Who takes a good thing and makes it a problem? What if my stress steals my focus and I get fired?

The hopeful news is that depending on how you approach stress, you can make it work for you instead of holding you up. Laurie and I talked about how it’s natural to experience stress, especially when starting a new job, not to mention doing so in a makeshift home office. But experiencing stress is different from letting stress define you. It’s also nothing to be ashamed of. When Laurie said things like “I need to get over myself—what’s my problem?” I had to remind her that she didn’t need to apologize for what she was feeling.

I was excited to tell Laurie about clinical psychologist Alia Crum’s pioneering work on the stress mindset, or seeing stress as potentially useful. As the principal investigator of the Stanford Mind & Body Lab, Dr. Crum has studied how adopting a “stress is bad for me” attitude can backfire. She recommends taking a fresh look at what we make of stress. While thoughts may come and go, a mindset describes how we perceive things more broadly, which means that revising our overarching attitudes can be a powerful way to improve our worldview.

In one study, Dr. Crum and her colleagues created a three-minute video promoting stress as a positive thing in life, complete with upbeat music and messaging and salient facts about how stress relates to peak performance, raises oxygen levels, improves focus, enhances decision-making, and helps people become leaders. Participants who viewed the clip were able to think more flexibly and experienced more positive emotions after doing stressful things like sitting down for a mock interview and giving a short speech.

Rather than judging your stress, engaging in problematic behaviors to reduce or avoid stress (such as turning down a work opportunity that would put you in the spotlight), or turning to destructive behaviors (like drinking too much), Dr. Crum and her colleagues encourage optimizing stress by leaning in to opportunities you care about, allowing yourself to feel whatever you feel without judgment, and appreciating that stress can be good for you. The point is to do things to pump yourself up rather than back out, especially when approaching challenging opportunities that align with your life purpose. How, for instance, might you face intense moments if you perceived them as chances to flex your values and level up? Through that lens, even ongoing stressful situations, like caring for a loved one, can be viewed as akin to chiseling and polishing your virtues.

Laurie, like many of my clients, was skeptical when I talked about the possibility of embracing stress. “Doesn’t stress accelerate disease and death?” she asked. In an incredible study of more than 28,000 people led by Dr. Abiola Keller, an assistant professor at Marquette University College of Nursing, researchers found that individuals who experienced a high amount of stress and believed stress affected their health were indeed at greater risk of premature mortality (by 43 percent!) than those who were stressed but didn’t associate it with poor health. Worrying about negative health outcomes from stress doesn’t prevent them; it escalates them.

One afternoon, Laurie told me her agenda for our session was to learn how to calm down before big meetings and focus less on how she was being perceived by others. She looked at me quizzically when I suggested she swap the words “calm down” with “get excited.” In research by Dr. Alison Wood Brooks, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, 90 percent of participants believed calming down was essential before an anxiety-provoking performance, a belief that was actually causing them stress. If you reflect on your own efforts to unwind on command, you may notice that rigorously trying to relax is both exhausting and impossible. To resolve this, Dr. Brooks recommends reappraising, or letting go of the urge to dramatically change how you feel and instead allowing those intense emotions to exist while reinterpreting them as excitement. Instead of suppressing your sensations, you’re honoring them while also shifting their emotional impact in a more positive direction.

In a different study led by Dr. Brooks, participants who announced “I am excited” before singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” in a karaoke performance sang more accurately and confidently than those who didn’t say the phrase. In another one of Dr. Brooks’s experiments, participants who reframed their jitters about performing a two-minute speech as excitement felt more enthusiastic—so much so that they spoke for longer! Those who reframed their stress as excitement were also perceived by others as more confident and competent.

Laurie realized that once she let go of judging her stress, she could get back in touch with her enthusiasm about her new job. Plus, when she stopped berating herself for being worked up and pressuring herself to calm down, she had more bandwidth to focus. The truth is, to do well, you need a certain level of energy rather than tranquility. Laurie similarly applied her excitement to causes that mattered to her outside of work. “Getting excited has given me my brainpower and energy back. I’m happy to say that I rejoined my book club and I began volunteering with a program to help domestic violence survivors with their résumés,” she told me.

Now it’s your turn. Experiment swapping “calm down” with “I am excited!” in your life.

Excerpted from Stress Resets: How to Soothe Your Body and Mind in Minutes by Jennifer L. Taitz, copyright © 2024. Used with permission of Workman, a division of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.