Many of us have come face-to-face with what has felt like overwhelming stress over the past few years. The uncertainty of a global pandemic and resulting disruption to our day-to-day lives can lead us to feel as if a new stressor is right around every corner. And perhaps it is. Stress researchers (yes, there are such professions) remind us that stress is inevitable. In fact, not only is stress inevitable, it can also be helpful in crafting a meaningful life. Before you reach through the screen and attempt to slap me (or leave a slew of negative comments), let me clarify. Excessive stress can have negative consequences to our health and relationships, absolutely. However, beyond our acute levels of stress, an even greater indicator of how stress effects our lives resides in our perspective about such stress. Do we believe it’s wearing us down or building our resilience? Do we view challenges as opportunities for growth or portals for impending failure?

Stress researcher Kelly McGonigal highlights the importance of our view of stress in her book, “The Upside of Stress.” She discusses research that shows that our view of our life stressors can make the difference between our bodies responding with inflammation and disease or our bodies responding with emotions and hormones that lead us to love, connection and purpose. For example, research by Stanford psychologist Alia Crum highlights how our mindset on stress (or cognitive appraisals, as she puts it) influences our body’s physical response to that stress. If we view our life stressors as roadblocks to our goals and negatively ruminate about what could go wrong or how overwhelmed we are, our bodies respond by constricting our blood vessels. If this happens enough, we start raising our risk for inflammatory health related diseases such as heart attacks and diabetes. However, if we view stressors as challenges to be faced, opportunities to strengthen our ability to handle difficulty and portals to meaning, our blood vessels actually respond similarly to when we experience emotions of courage and excitement. Our thought patterns can actually shift our bodily responses. The old adage “You are what you think” has biological merit in this realm.

Similarly, if we view our racing heart before a big presentation as a sign that we are weak because we are nervous, we are heading down a path of disempowerment, mentally and physically. However, if we view our racing heart as adaptive, ie. “My heart is pumping more blood to help me move effectively and rise to this challenge”, our bodies utilize the stressor as a form of empowerment, which leads to more positive outcomes. Why is this? When we feel stress is inherently bad, we utilize more harmful ways of coping by self-condemnation and numbing out behaviors. When we view it as adaptive, stress can become a motivational slingshot of sorts, propelling us into our purpose in deeper ways.

Stress has relational benefits as well. When we are stressed, we release hormones like oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as the cuddle hormone; It’s a bonding chemical at it’s core. Stress leads us toward connection with others and relational connection helps us live long healthy lives. Don’t believe me? Check out this article that references the astounding fact that loneliness takes 15 years off our life expectancy, among other detrimental effects.

Finally, as we examine stress under an existential microscope, we find that stress is a pre-cursor to meaning. Think about this in your own life for a moment. Consider the last time you accomplished something truly meaningful. Chances are, it was preceded by a moment or a season of stress. Sure, we could seek to eliminate all forms of stress in hopes of living a perfectly controlled life. It wouldn’t last long, though, because stress is inevitable. Eliminating stress would also eliminate deep streams of meaning that come from facing challenges and persevering in the midst of the difficulty.