Stress.

Just seeing that word evokes a visceral response. It’s the tossing and turning the night before a big meeting. It’s the hectic morning rush to get out the door on time. It’s the pounding headache after a long day at work.

Peruse any major magazine these days, and you’re bound to find some article about the harmful effects of stress. Everyone’s talking about how to lower, manage, and overcome stress. It’s the villain of our time.

But stress isn’t the enemy. Once-upon-a-time, stress was the only thing keeping us alive from predators. And, if it can screw up our lives as badly as it does, imagine what would happen if we knew how to use it in a good way. So let’s figure out how to put stress to work for us, not against us.

Here are 5 surprising ways that stress can improve your life:

1. Stress gives you the energy to handle a crisis.

Remember the last time you stayed up all night to meet a deadline? Or that time you made a quick decision in an emergency situation? Stress response tightened your muscles, sharpened your vision, laser-pointed your concentration, and spiked your blood sugar, all so you’d have the strength, energy, and focus to get the job done. Stress is just your body’s physiological response to perceived danger. It’s your natural safety net to get you out of a tight spot.

2. You’ve got no other option than to see what you’re made of.

In the midst of stress, you don’t have time to be insecure about what people will think or how you look to them. Stress forces you to dig deep and access strengths and skills that you never knew existed. It pushes you out of your comfort zone, increases your self-confidence, and teaches you how to grow. Stress is the driving motivation to push you past your limits and reach your potential.

3. It shines a light on problem areas in your life.

Stress is a great marker for areas of your life that aren’t working. If the stress red flag is always up in your job or relationship or busy schedule, then it’s time to take a closer look at the offender. Maybe you’re taking on too much, setting unrealistic expectations, or living with limiting beliefs. Want to be happier? Look at the areas of your life that are most stressful, and change those to work for you.

4. You’ve got the urge to move.

Ever noticed what people do when they’re stressed? They pace. We’ve got a built-in instinct to start moving. That fight-or-flight mentality sends us the energy, strength, and jitters to hit the treadmill. It’s no coincidence that people like to exercise when they’re stressed. So next time you’re feeling the office stress, try a walking-meeting. You’ll use up that stress response and get your cardio done for the day.

5. You can learn to read your body’s emotion map.

It’s no secret that great leaders have high emotional intelligence. But they aren’t just pulling this out of thin air. You can use the patterns of your stress response to understand your emotions. For example, a tightened stomach often signifies loss of control or fear of power struggles. Tense shoulders can be a sign of overburden or taking on too much. And a stiff neck can mean not being nimble or flexible enough. Stress is just a physiological response to a thought or emotion. So, as you learn to read your own stress map, you can understand the underlying emotion.

Let’s face it: stress isn’t going away any time soon. So you might as well figure out how to use it to your advantage. Stress isn’t the problem; it’s just a red flag that something isn’t working. So, instead of vilifying it, why not make friends and use it to design the life you want?

That already sounds less stressful, doesn’t it?

Featured photo credit: © Nikolais | Dreamstime Stock Photos via stockfreeimages.com

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