So, 2020. All things considered, a pretty stressful year.
COVID-19 has changed how we do just about everything. (For example, the era of the handshake is probably over. Get ready for fist bumps.) But we’ve probably changed as people in ways that will take awhile to process, too.
One change we should all take stock of immediately is our individual and collective stress levels. Even if you’re coping well, the simple stress of living through a pandemic is undeniable. According to the American Psychological Association, the adverse mental health effects of experiencing this point in time will be “serious and long-lasting.” For millions of people, they’ve already begun.
It’s human nature to avoid stress and seek out the path of least resistance. But it’s also an accepted truism that some of the most rewarding things in life are difficult to achieve. And stress, like a lot of difficult things, can actually have some positive benefits.
With the right mentality, tools, and support, we can turn it into an equally valuable motivator and teacher.
Stress yourself out properly
Even before 2020 turned into a perfect storm of anxiety, the APA had identified rising levels of stress in America as a looming national crisis. And according to a recent Economist survey, sponsored by Dropbox, 40% of Millennials/Gen Z have reported higher levels of stress in the shift to WFH. A lot of our stress comes from situations and systems that, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t be dealing with at all, and hopefully the pandemic will positively transform some underlying sources, like affordable housing in cities and finding career opportunities nearby. But how we deal with those moments can in itself become a positive event.
Despite the negative connotation of stress (try to think of the last time you talked about it in a happy way), it’s a vital and formative part of life. Look no further than all the phrases we use to talk about turning adversity into opportunity. Whether you’re looking for a storm cloud’s silver lining or getting stronger from what doesn’t kill you, we know as a society that good things can come from stress. That doesn’t make it any less scary or overwhelming.
The answer isn’t as simple as saying that some people are durable enough to get through stressful times, while others are fragile and break under the pressure. In fact, we all can change our brains and become hardy enough to benefit from stressful moments (or years). And we can use that changed perspective to fuel ourselves in productive, enriching new directions.
The science of hardiness
In a TED Talk, psychologist Kelly McGonigal explores the idea that stress is your friend. Her own research into the topic brought her to the Hardiness Research Lab at UC Irvine, run by Dr. Salvatore R. Maddi. Throughout his career and his work at the Hardiness Lab, he’s concluded that everyone who flourishes after stress shares a similar worldview. The same is true for those who are continually defeated by stressful scenarios.
People who view stress as inevitable and unavoidable are far more likely to find ways to adapt to and learn from it. Conversely, those who avoid it both mentally and physically often find themselves overwhelmed.
But McGonigal says that there is a hormonal equation at play here as well. We’ve all felt the physical sensations of a truly stressful situation before. From sweaty palms to a pounding heart rate, our bodies get flooded with adrenaline as part of a basic stress response. But the body’s stress response system continues after the stress-inducing event is over, and that’s where we begin to change on a chemical level.
The hormones your body releases post-stress increase neuroplasticity—your body’s ability to learn new things. On a biological level, stress makes us stronger and better equipped to handle the thing that stressed us out the next time we encounter it.
Depending on how we view stress though, we may not always internalize that fact. Dr. Maddi has outlined two approaches that have existed in productivity and educational spheres for years under different names. You may have heard of them: Fixed and Growth Mindsets.
On a biological level, stress makes us stronger and better equipped to handle the thing that stressed us out the next time we encounter it.
Fixing or growing your stress
American psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck changed how many people thought about failure, success, and education with her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Her biggest contribution was how these two mindsets can radically affect almost everything in someone’s life. In a 2012 interview, she explained:
“In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching, and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”
Through this lens, the stress of life during COVID is something we either accept as flat and limiting or as something we can work through and learn from. If you made the transition to distributed work during the pandemic, you’re living proof of that. The majority of workers were not allowed or interested in distributed work before the pandemic: Now, 57% believe life’s better this way. We have taught ourselves how to change fundamental parts of our daily lives during the stress of this year.
What else could we teach ourselves?
A different kind of vaccine
The urge to teach ourselves new things was pretty common during the first months of the pandemic. From baking to crafting, there was an immediate impulse to do something with this time.
But slowly, as the realization this was going to be an ongoing affair, Instagrams of croissants and crocheted hats mostly faded away. Now that the end is in sight, maybe we can be reminded of the possibility of this time—an opportunity to embrace stress and get more comfortable with it.
After all, studies have found people who work through stress feel healthier and happier afterwards. In the same way our bodies are more prepared for a stressful event the second time around, our minds gear up, too.
Psychologists call this phenomenon stress inoculation. Like the name suggests, it’s the belief that going through a stressful situation offers some protection in the future. Astronauts and athletes who perform at an elite level know from training that when they encounter stress, their bodies will remember what to do.
But what about those of us who won’t be called upon to guard LeBron James or make the next moon landing? Stress inoculation works for everyday life, as well. When asked how they coped with the most stressful moments in their lives, 82% of people said they recalled a time they had faced extreme hardship and made it through.
It’s a mantra that you may have told yourself at one point this year: “If I got through X, I can handle Y.”
If you managed to turn your kitchen table into a functional office space, you can get a handle on a new language. If you suddenly became your child’s babysitter/teacher/sole source of entertainment, you can finish a new workout routine. The stress was omnipresent during those moments, but you grew through them anyway.
And then there are all the other bigger stresses you’ve endured this year and are still enduring. We’ve almost made it through 2020, and there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel. Imagine what you can get through after all this.