20 Things to Know About Stress, Movement, and Positive Action Right Now

Stress is omnipresent. We all experience it at times, no matter how good we are at managing it. Sometimes our stress can be exacerbated (like when everything feels uncertain, for example), but it’s important to understand that stress isn’t exactly a bad thing. As it turns out, stress is actually energy manifested in our bodies and brains to help us take positive action when we feel overwhelmed.

We spoke to health psychologist and Stanford lecturer Dr. Kelly McGonigal about stress and what it does to us physically and mentally. Author of The Upside of Stress, among other books, Kelly had a wealth of information to share with us when she came to Studio/E for an event focused on this topic. We all need to figure out how to lead ourselves and our teams through the changes thrown at us daily. To do so, we must learn how to manage our stress.

Here are 20 things to know about stress, movement, and positive action right now:

  1. Stress is the natural human capacity to respond in moments that matter. We experience stress physically and mentally when something we care about is at stake, and we feel stress often because we have lives that are meaningful.
  2. If you want to be good at stress, don’t try to avoid or reduce it. Instead, accept that life is stressful, and for good reason (see above). Use stress as a moment to slow down and respond in healthy ways. This will change your perspective when stressful situations arise. This blog post covers healthy stress responses if you want to learn more.
  3. When we recognize that stress is bigger than us (i.e. we’re not the only ones struggling, others have been through this before, etc.) our bodies and brains shift into a state which urges us to connect with others. Our bodies secrete chemicals that make us want to be around other people, which is like a safety net because a strong sense of community and belonging helps us navigate stress.
  4. Related to #3, stress can make us more open to interdependence and receiving help from others. This happens so we don’t go through something alone, and those we care about won’t either. This instinct activates the movement system of our brains, which helps us plan and take positive actions and keeps us engaged rather than seizing up and retreating, which is a common stress response.
  5. Connecting and caregiving create resilience in three ways: 1) They open us up to receiving help, understanding that none of us can do it alone; 2) When we help others, we consider ourselves a resource, which builds courage; 3) Seeing and celebrating the kindness and courage of others who are connecting and caregiving provides us with a greater sense of positivity. Together, all three of these components of caregiving and connecting with others create more resilience when we need it most.
  6. A common stress response is to feel like we cannot trust others and we are in our situations alone. This is not only destructive mentally, but it is toxic for our immune systems.
  7. We can make meaning out of stressful situations while we’re in them by thinking about the survival stories we’ll tell once we get through it. An example is, “I survived the COVID-19 pandemic by taking daily walks and frequently checking in with friends.”
  8. If you are able to move your body, you’re better off psychologically. Movement improves social relationships and increases the meaning of life in every culture, age group, race, gender, and health status. Physically moving your body for as little as three minutes releases chemicals in your body that motivate you, give you a more positive outlook, provide you with a burst of energy, and help you focus. Movement can immediately reset your mood.
  9. When we experience grief, anxiety, or depression, our brains put our bodies into a state which makes it difficult to physically move. These emotional states immobilize us as a form of self-defense and self-retreat, and it can be hard to cross that activation barrier and get moving. Music is one of the best ways to activate movement when our bodies are in one of these states.
  10. If you move your body continuously for 20 minutes at a moderate intensity or greater, your brain releases all sorts of chemicals that relieve stress, physical pain, anxiety, anger, and even enhance pleasure. They’re also considered social bonding hormones, as you’ll get more pleasure out of play, cooperation, teaching, and learning when these chemicals are surging through your body.
  11. Research shows if you exercise in the morning, you’ll have more positive interactions for the rest of the day, and whatever the most stressful thing is that happens to you that day will take less of a toll on your outlook and emotional wellbeing.
  12. Even introverts need to be around people. As human beings, we have a profound need to be in the physical presence of those who care about us and whom we care about. These relationships are sources of resilience and meaning, as there’s a basic level of social safety that’s created through positive social interactions.
  13. Stress can illuminate our strengths. Stressful circumstances bring out attributes of ours that were already there. If we identify those attributes (maybe they are patience, courage, kindness, etc.), and recognize that they supported us during a crisis, these important attributes become more valuable and easier to tap into during other stressful circumstances. We can initiate this process by naming the attributes we’ve noticed, then owning them as things we choose to do rather than reactions triggered from a stressful situation.
  14. The ability to recognize that stress is actually a psychological strength allows us to get through difficult times, and it creates a mindset that the next time we find ourselves thrown into an overwhelming situation, we’ll be able to respond in healthier ways.
  15. Those who are able to appreciate human interdependence experience less depression and anxiety and feel more belonging.
  16. Humans can simultaneously experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic growth (the positive attributes we experience from stress listed in #13).
  17. Music makes movement possible when there’s no part of your brain that knows how or wants to do it. If you want to move more and you struggle with anxiety and depression, make a playlist. It will get your body moving, if only in tiny ways.
  18. When we’re in depressive states and would most benefit from movement, our brains lie to us. They tell us we’re in a state of low energy and therefore don’t have the energy needed to move. So we often don’t. A trick Kelly suggests is thinking like a mentor and reminding ourselves that we’re not mentally in a place to recognize how good we’ll feel after some movement, but we know how beneficial it would be, so we should get up and move.
  19. Guilt and shame are powerful emotions and are actually incompatible with positive action. If we know we need to take action on something, or we know our teams need to, inspiration and positivity go much further than guilt and shame.
  20. Two of the quickest ways to reset your mindset on stress are: 1) Instead of freezing up when reacting to stress, consider the challenge response. Tell yourself “I can rise to this challenge.” Do this by thinking of your stress as energy available to you. Take the physical symptoms (heart pounding, tense muscles, rapid breathing, etc.) as evidence that your body and brain are working hard to give you access to energy needed to perform well under this pressure. 2) Think of stress as an opportunity to learn and grow. Stress is a biological mechanism for learning from experience. So no matter the situation, remember you’ll have time to process and learn from it afterward, even if the situation feels overwhelming right now. This is part of the learning cycle.

When feeling stressed, the most important thing to remember is that you can choose your mindset about it, and therefore how you’ll react to it. You can remind yourself that stress your body’s way of producing energy so you can take positive action and learn from the experience. This is what Exploratory Leaders do: we take action, learn, and take more action. There is no escaping stress, so the sooner we all learn to embrace it, the better off we’ll be.

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