Last night I had a nightmare, like those I had when I was small. In the dream I had a terrible fight with someone. We were wrestling on the floor, and I was hitting this faceless person over and over again in the face with an iron bar. It was horrible, and went on and on!

I eventually managed to wake myself up, sweating and with my heart was pounding. Even though it was just a dream, it had felt completely real. I got out of bed and went to the kitchen to calm myself.

Sitting in the kitchen with the light on, drinking a glass of water, the nightmare receded and it got me thinking about my stress-reaction to the nightmare.

Now, most of us believe that stress is bad – it feels horrible, and causes ulcers and even heart attacks, right?

But stress is not that simple. We enjoy some stress, such as that which comes from excitement. I remember like it was yesterday falling head over heels for a gorgeous girl, and having stress reactions of sweaty palms, dry mouth, and fast beating heart. (That girl and I celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary at the end of this month!)

Rising to an occasion or overcoming an obstacle also involves the thrill of stress and excitement. The challenge and stress of excitement brings out the best in us.

Too much stress, on the other hand, is overwhelming and debilitating.

I was intrigued to watch a TED Talk with a very different take on stress. It is by psychologist Kelly McGonigal entitled “How to make stress your friend”. (click here)

In her talk, she refers to a study conducted over many years that seems to indicate that a person’s beliefs about stress has more to do with whether they lived or died, than their levels of stress did. Even those people who had lower levels of stress, but believed stress was harmful to them, died at higher rates than those who reported having high levels of stress, but believed stress was not harmful to their health.

She concludes that stress itself doesn’t kill you, it’s believing that stress is bad that will kill you. So she says that you should make stress your friend.

Sitting at the kitchen table, the idea of making the stress of my nightmare my friend was really provocative!

I agree with her that a resilient reaction to the stress of unwelcome change, setbacks, unhappiness and disappointments is very different to a non-resilient reaction.

Take non-resilient thinking. When something really stressful happens, its easy to slip into thinking over and over again about what happened. Thinking obsessively about stressful events that have occurred, or ruminating, is usually about blame, finding fault and beating yourself up. You re-experience  all the upsetting feelings again and again. This backward-focus doesn’t change what happened, or even help you to deal with it. That’s clearly not a resilient reaction.

Resilient thinking on the other hand, is very different. It has a forward-focus, and concerns changing the future to make it different from the present. A resilient reaction may involve reframing the cause of the stress by asking open-ended questions, such as:

  • what can I learn from this,
  • what should I do differently next time,
  • what opportunity does this potentially create?

These questions change your focus from backward-looking about regrets, to forward-looking about the future. Changing your thoughts like this helps you become resilient. Change your thoughts, change your mind. Change your mind, change your life.

Thinking overall about making stress your friend, I do think that a resilient response in any situation, is more helpful than a non-resilient response. I believe however, that there are major real-life problems that don’t fit the idea of making stress your friend, because they require systemic solutions, such as violence to women and children, gangsterism and crime, poverty and inequality.

With all this in mind, I went back to bed, hoping my thoughts about resilience would prevent the recurrence of my nightmare.

Fortunately, they did.

In tough times, how do you keep your thoughts resilient and forward-looking?