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Stress & Humor: How to Tame the Stress Monster

July 29, 2021 by Coach Training EDU

As it turns out, the most stressful thing in our lives isn’t stress itself – it’s stress about stress. But what does that mean?

Stress has become a “dirty word” in recent years, but the way you physically perceive stress can actually be a gift, not a curse. If you release your preconceptions about how stress is “ruining your life,” you may just unlock the ability to use that stressful energy to your benefit, rather than your demise.

Changing How You Think

Where does your perception of stress begin? Your chest tightens, your breathing quickens, you find yourself tapping your foot just a little quicker than seems natural – what is wrong with me? A pressure, a conflict, a deadline – something is telling your body that you need a little extra something to rise to the occasion. When we realize this, it often makes us panic even more. Oh no, I am so stressed. Some of us spin out even further: If I don’t get out from underneath this stress, it’s going to give me a heart attack. 

But what if we turned this situation on its head? What if we noticed those biological preparations for “action” and saw them as just that? Good, my body is engaging with an extra dose of oomph to get me through this challenge. 

This is what Kelly McGonigal, psychologist and author of The Upside of Stress has discovered. And she’s not the only one – there have been countless studies in the last few decades on the effect of stress on our bodies – and not just the stress, but the stress of the stress. Her prescription? You may not always be able to get rid of the stress, but you can sure get better at managing it.

What the Research Shows 

Research has shown that those who have the ability to see stress as a help rather than a hindrance tend to perform better at the task in front of them. In a study at Harvard Business School, researcher Alison Wood Brooks discovered just this. “Compared to those who attempt to calm down, individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement feel more excited and perform better.” These individuals sought to think about the potential stressors as opportunities rather than threats. Even simple self-talk was a huge help. (Don’t worry, no one will know about the pep talk you have with yourself in front of the bathroom mirror.)

Another study of 186 million individuals showed that 33.7% of them reported that they were under high levels of stress, and they believed their stress was having an impact on their mental and physical health. The results were sobering: these individuals had a 43% higher risk of dying prematurely.

Laugh it Off

The best way to make something smaller is to laugh at it. It’s funny how we personify stress as a big, scary villain without even realizing it. We may all agree that a solely safe and secure life is a rather boring one, but when those challenges arise that give our lives texture and meaning, we suddenly feel threatened. Why? This is the adventure we’ve been waiting for! The opportunity to be a hero and a conqueror!

The decision to laugh at the situation, laugh at ourselves, laugh at the seemingly unsurmountable – this is how we conquer that which seems like a threat but is truly just a twist in our story.

Speaking of strange things to do in your bathroom mirror – even the act of going through the physical motions of laughter without any humor involved renders psychological benefits.

How to Handle the Beast

Give the beast a funny name, for starters. Teaching your client to externalize their stress can help them understand that it’s not them that’s causing the difficulty they’re facing. It takes them off the self-appointed hot seat – the all-too-common place we find ourselves, which compounds our perception of stress more than we realize.

Don’t be deceived – changing one’s outlook on stress is not a matter of willpower. We will do ourselves a great disservice if we simplify this feat to a mere decision. We can end up even more discouraged than where we started. It’s important to let your clients know that taming the stress beast is a process, achieved after making a series of decisions, and not a singular moment in time. 

Many external factors impact the privilege we have to pursue a different perspective. Investing in our physical health by exercising and maintaining consistent sleep and rest patterns makes it possible for us to have the faculty to make any decision. As life coaches, we are a part of an irreplaceable network of support and guidance. Determine what stressors are a part of your client’s normal life (making a presentation at work, racing toward a deadline) and help them harness that “stress” energy into “excitement” energy. Lead them to be glad for their body’s cues that something important is coming up, and encourage them to tell themselves (in the bathroom mirror or elsewhere) that they’re up to the task.

Taking on a different attitude about stress doesn’t mean we should overload ourselves with activities or neglect critical self-care. Seeing stress as a potential positive in your life won’t turn you into a superhero overnight. However, taking inventory of your body’s responses to normal, everyday stressors and channeling those impulses into powerful motivators may have huge health benefits. Being stressed out all the time is not a part of living the dream, though saying that a lot seems to be a rite of passage in our society. When helping your client marry stress and humor, have them consider it a personal challenge to turn that “dirty word” into an empowered and confident posture.

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