How Stress Can Make You Stronger

man leaving Melaleuca wheelbarrow


You can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it. And, much like the question of whether having eggs for breakfast is a good or bad idea, the debate over stress is an ongoing bone of contention. Some say stress causes everything from the common cold to cancer, and some say stress does for the mind what weightlifting does for the body—it helps build strength and resilience.

Which argument should you believe? Is there a healthy way to deal with stress?

Life is stress

stressOne thing for sure—if you are alive, you are experiencing stress. In a sense, life is stress; each day subjects us to changes in the weather, unexpected challenges and requests, deadlines to meet, news (whether perceived as “good” or “bad”), disagreements, disappointments, fear and the like—and all of these bring on stress.

Researchers commonly understand “stress” as anything that disrupts your normal routine and elicits a reaction. If you are stepping out into a crosswalk and someone yells “Look out!” just as a car speeds by, the stress of the moment was helpful. It caused you to stop and look instead of walking in front of an automobile. There are other types of stress, though, that wear your defenses down and can lower your resistance to disease.

The worst kind of stress

Stress that arises, but soon dissipates, can help keep us on our toes. Most people enjoy the thrill of a ride at the county fair or the exhilaration of listening to a motivational keynote speech.

When the stress settles in for the long term, though, and when the underlying situation seems to be completely out of our control, stress can turn on us—tearing us apart from the inside out. The loss of your spouse, being blocked from advancement at work, chronic health problems—all of these are types of stress that can destroy a person. They can rob the joy from life and bring on (what can seem to be) an endless stream of insurmountable problems in their wake.
changing jobs

How to fight back

Those who suffer stress-related symptoms—irritability, tiredness, headaches, skin rashes, lack of motivation, outbursts of anger and such—often try to place the blame elsewhere, instead of looking squarely at the problem. After all, the situation seems uncontrollable and the ramifications seem overwhelming.

Left unaddressed, these situations set the sufferer up for certain failure—maybe even for psychological problems or attempts at suicide. The first thing to remember when the cloud of distress begins to settle is that there are options. You are not stuck without hope.

For instance:

  • Get up and get going. Exercise invigorates the body, giving tangible proof of your ability to endure and to move on.
  • Breathe. Under stress, the breath becomes shallow and interrupted. Much benefit can be derived from simple breath exercises. Breathe in hope; breathe out anxiety. There are many books and teachings on breath management that can help.
  • Change to a different job–one where you are appreciated. Look at the options: Are you an entrepreneur at heart? Who needs your talents?
  • Find faith and meaning. Life can be overwhelming and life can be scary. There is much in the world to fear. Denying that fact does not help one cope with reality.
  • Embrace the change, or embrace the potential for change. Consider the timeless maxim, “This too shall pass.”

The value of remembering purpose and letting go of your (imagined) control

Those who believe life has meaning can survive calamities that cause others to give up and die. The work of Dr.Viktor Frankl poignantly bears this out, especially his detailed descriptions of what it was like to be a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps of WWII.

Any method of dealing with stress, though, begins with recognizing stress and agreeing with yourself that something can be done to either alleviate or endure the situation.

You can probably pick up a large stone without much difficulty. You can even hold it straight out in front of you. After a short period, though, your arm will grow tired. It won’t be long before the muscles start to quiver. And at some point, your ability to hold the stone will collapse entirely.

That is the way it is with stress. You can’t hold it for long. Don’t try. Do something about it. Tell someone about it. Fight back. Like Dr. Frankl, you may find the insurmountable problem really was there to help make you stronger, not to punish you or break you or hurt you.

Life is a school, my friend.

Listen and learn.