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  • Writer's pictureRob Carlson

How to Make Stress Work for You

A man who learned to make his stress work for him.

You’ve heard it before, you’ve got to take care of yourself. Stress isn’t good for you. If you don’t manage your stress, your stress is going to manage you. Then you feel like you hear people telling you to spend your life avoiding opportunities because they look hard.

The fact is, most of us don’t enjoy being stressed. but is stress something that should be demonized?

You’re familiar with the feeling. You’re overwhelmed and you can’t think straight. You find yourself thinking things like, I have to get out of this! I can’t keep going this way. It’s all just too much.

We all experience these thoughts and feelings at some point in our lives. But that doesn’t make them any easier. Stress is miserable and feels impossible to get out from under.

If you’re feeling this way right now, I’m sorry. It’s a hard place to be. You might find it difficult to enjoy other parts of life because work or family or a particular situation is so highly stressful. You may feel constantly anxious, or everything in your life might seem grey.

You’re not alone. In Gallup's 2021 report, 57% of U.S. and Canadian workers said that they were stressed on a daily basis. That was 8% higher that the previous year. The Gallup pole found that U.S. and Canadian women reported their stress at even higher rates then men, a whopping 62% of women reported they felt daily stress from work and taking care of their households. In analyzing the breakdown of reports like the Gallup pole, the issue is the that stress doesn't stop at the end of the workday, it pervades people's evenings and weekends.

People aren't escaping their stress.

An exhausted woman, even after she comes home from work.

In my work as a stress therapist, I counsel lot of clients on how to manage their stress. Staying in a place of ongoing suffering is unhealthy and painful.

But often when we think about stress, our immediate reaction is to wish it away. The impact we experience is bad, so obviously the solution is getting rid of the stress. Right?

Our body is constantly under stress in a multitude of ways. Our environment puts stress on us, physical exertion exhausts us, and our mental life exerts tension on our minds. Stress is a normal part of life. Stress doesn’t end until life ends. So why do we talk about living a stress-free life as though it’s something we can or should do?

Yes, stress can be harmful—but it doesn’t have to be. We are not at the mercy of our stress.

When we're able to align our stress with our values, we can make it work for us, not against us.

Anesthesiologist Hans Selye, who first discovered the concept of stress in the mice he was working on, famously said (in his book Stress without Distress) that “stress is the spice of life.” What he meant by that is that stress is essential to existence. Stress is what moves us to find balance.

Stress is useful in a multitude of ways. When we subject our bodies to stress through exercise, we build muscle and endurance. When we allow our minds to endure difficult challenges, we accomplish goals, learn new things, and find ourselves more capable of pursuing the careers we want.

Focusing on an existence that’s about avoiding stress means that we’re not putting our energy into channeling our stress toward good. We aren’t going to find much satisfaction with our lives if we’re only focusing on the negative.

Now, I’m not saying that we need to live our lives under massive amounts of stress. That’s unhealthy and unsustainable. In the U.S., 9 of the 10 most common causes of death are all linked to stress.

So no—stress is certainly not something we should seek after. However, because stress is unavoidable, we can be strategic about what stress we allow ourselves to experience. We can choose to align our stress with our mission in life.

Our time and energy are finite, and we have more control over what we give that time and energy to than we tend to think.

For example, if you're in a job where you're miserable or have a toxic boss, you'll find yourself burning out quickly. Finding a new job can feel daunting, but that’s a choice that could lead to reduced stress over time.

So as we seek to align our stress with our goals, how do we evaluate what we give our time to?

First, consider your values, especially in your work and career. What drives you forward? What causes you to show up even when things are difficult? I discovered early on that I was drawn to work that integrated compassion and care for others. As a stress therapist, I have a lot of opportunities to do that as I walk alongside people sharing the difficulties of their lives. When I am aligned with living out my compassion, I look forward to my work and to showing up at my office daily.

So what values are important to you in the work that you do? Are you living out those values at your work?

Second, once you have identified your values, seek out ways you can increasingly bring those out in your workspace. It’s not enough to simply know what’s important to us; we have to behave and speak in ways that are aligned with those values. When we do this, we’re more satisfied with our lives, even when we do challenging work.

But what if you realize that you’re in a job where you don’t feel well aligned? What if you struggle to identify ways to live out your values in what you do? Then it may be time to consider an option for change:

  • Option 1: Leave your situation (find a new role, apply for a new job, get out).

  • Option 2: Change what you can (your mindset, your environment, have conversations with your team), and then accept what you cannot change.

  • Option 3: Do what you can to make things worse. (This, of course, is the least helpful option—and ironically, we choose this option all the time.)

Remembering that you have options, that there are elements that you can control, can have a big impact on how you make stress work for you. Your life doesn’t have to just happen to you. You get to have a say.

As Robert Eliot M.D. said, “Rule number one is, don’t sweat the small stuff. Rule number two is, it is all small stuff. And if you can’t fight or flee, flow.”

Fighting with the things that bring stress or running away from them can often make things worse. Learning how to flow—how to adapt your life to the stress you have—is how you can make stress work for you. That’s when your stress becomes a tool, and not an obstacle, on the path to your goals.

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