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Why Stress Can Actually Be A Good Thing

It’s about whether you approach it as a threat or a challenge.

25/05/2017 8:28 PM AEST | Updated 25/05/2017 8:28 PM AEST

By now we have all learnt that stress is a bad thing and we should avoid it. We are well-versed in the benefits of a good night's sleep, meditation and a nutritious diet. We know how to live well. Though as much as you try, avoiding stress is impossible. It is, annoyingly, a part of life.

So, can we look at stress in a more positive light?

"We think stress is bad for our health because that message is drilled into us. We are told to decrease stress at all costs. We are shown that stress causes everything from heart disease and obesity to irritable bowel and erectile dysfunction," author Luke Mathers told HuffPost Australia.

Some stress is downright awful whichever way you look at it, such as the death of a loved one. But daily stresses like challenges at work don't have to be all bad.

Mathers has written a book on the topic, called Stress Teflon. The author frequently speaks to leading companies about productivity, stress and philanthropy, which is another of his passions. He started an optometry aid service in Vanuatu and has provided thousands of pairs of glasses to people who were devastated by Cyclone Pam. He is also the founding shareholder of Nevhouse, a company that builds low-cost housing in developing countries out of recycled plastic.

No feat in human history has been completed without overcoming some form of stress.

Controversially, Mathers doesn't believe it's the stress itself that causes health ailments.

"I don't think that stress causes heart attacks and ulcers. I believe the way we react to stress is what causes those things. There will always be stress, and there will always be a choice in how you respond to it. This is what I call 'the fork in the stress road'.

"One road turns stress into a threat. This type of stress causes increased blood pressure and heart attacks and is generally associated with a feeling that we can't handle the situation. You feel overwhelmed, threatened and vulnerable. Down this road, we ruminate about problems and find it tough to navigate a way out. This type of stress has awful health implications and is indeed bad for you," Mathers said.

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Which way will you go?

If one fork in the road is 'threat', Mathers believes the other is 'challenge'.

"What if it didn't have to be that way? What if we took the fork in the stress road where we view stress as a challenge. This type of stress doesn't cause vascular problems, doesn't cause IBS or get you reaching for the Valium. This fork in the stress road provides a short term power booster that fires you up to get stuff done.

"The challenge response to stress is where greatness comes from, and no feat in human history has been completed without overcoming some form of stress. Re-framing stress as a challenge will help you achieve more, overcome more challenges and build resilience. Stress doesn't have to be bad for you, and so much of it is about your attitude and which stress road you take," Mathers said.

Mathers believes that people can use stress to their advantage, if they have the right attitude and belief.

"I have a question I ask at corporate speaking events. It is: 'If you knew you could handle any situation, would you have more stress or less stress?' Everyone says that they would have less stress," Mathers said.

"I think, if you knew you could handle any situation, you would search for more challenges and essentially find more stress. You would bite off more than you could chew and chew like hell. When people stop fearing and avoiding stress, they free themselves up to climb new mountains and challenge themselves in ways they never dreamed possible."

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Do you view stress as a threat or a challenge?

Embracing stress requires leaving your comfort zone and utilises your caveman, evolutionary biology to fire up and give you the energy to embrace life's challenges.

"When used effectively, stress is a fantastic tool that unlocks potential, builds resilience and moves the boundaries of what's possible," Mathers said.

Mathers uses the term 'eudaimonia' a lot throughout his book and in his talks.

"I love the Greeks! Aristotle talked a lot about eudaimonia, and it literally means 'good spirit'. In modern English, it translates to health, happiness, wellbeing. It's about living a life of meaning and doing great things while objectively flourishing. I love that term -- who wouldn't like to 'objectively flourish'?

"To objectively flourish, you need the safety of a tribe, you need to do things that make you feel proud, and you need honest self-awareness. Achieving eudaimonia is when you know you are a good person and that you can handle any situation. When you know this, stress doesn't stick, and you become stress teflon."

Understanding the two brain concept is an easy way to develop the self-awareness you need to achieve eudaimonia and become stress teflon.

Another point Mathers discusses is the theory of the 'old brain' and 'new brain'.

"Humans have evolved over thousands of years, and our brain has developed in layers like an onion. The old brain, or limbic brain, is in the middle and is responsible for our fight and flight response. It is located at the top of the spinal cord, and it's reactive (either off or on), quick and fantastic at saving us in a life threatening situation. It's a great thing in the jungle, but not quite as reliable in modern life," Mathers said.

"That's where the new brain comes in. The new brain is there to supervise the Old Brain's reactions. It is subtle, nuanced and is where our logical thoughts are generated. The New Brain is responsible for language, complex ideas and, among other things, its job is to monitor what the old brain is up to. The new brain can either increase or decrease our stress response.

"To do this, you need to understand how the two brains interact and determine if the new brain is helping the situation or throwing fuel on the fire. In my book I teach you how to keep the two brains linked and ensure stressful situations don't get blown out of control. Understanding the two brain concept is an easy way to develop the self-awareness you need to achieve eudaimonia and become stress teflon."

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