Turn stress into a strength

Monday, May 20, 2024

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We often hear about the negative impact of stress—how it can raise blood pressure, interfere with sleep, increase anxiety levels, and even damage the brain. And it’s true: Stress can have a negative impact on our health. We all need to find ways to decompress, release tension, and restore ourselves.

But is all stress bad? Could it be that the stress you’re feeling as you tear through a call sheet, gear up for a sales meeting, or hit your weekly targets can actually be…a good thing?

Turns out that not all stress is bad. In fact, the right amount of stress may be just what you need to increase your productivity, foster better relationships, and increase your quality of life.

For one, it forces people to solve problems more effectively, which helps us build skills we may need for future experiences. It also primes us for peak performance. The hormone that’s responsible for causing stress is the same hormone that primes us to get in the zone. Stress has been shown to sharpen our memory, strengthen our social bonds and even make us more creative. So how can we start saying “yes” to stress and turn it into a strength?

Reframing Stress

There’s a difference between chronic stress states (which occur when we don’t give ourselves enough downtime or self-care) and moments or times of stress. Moments of stress happen all the time and can help us grow and get stronger. For example, we sometimes mislabel excitement as anxiety. The physiological markers are often the same—faster heart rate and breath rate, increased energy, and a racing mind.

Often people who tend to be anxious will experience all physiological experiences like this as anxiety, when, in fact, some of it is excitement or anticipation. And thinking you’re excited versus thinking you’re anxious makes a difference. This is not to discount true moments of anxiety, but reframing the experience from anxiety to excitement can help us navigate experience more easily.

The same idea could be applied to stress in certain times, such as leading up to a big deadline or going through a divorce. Instead of getting worried about being stressed (which can add to your stress), you could understand it as stress in the service of greater growth and development. Nearly all growth processes and advancements include a time of perceived stress, but we don’t have to fall prey to the negative side effects of stress.

Build a Stress-Management Toolkit

Using stress as strength is a practice; each of us has a smaller or wider bandwidth to tolerate higher or lower levels of stress. And no one can tolerate high amounts of stress skillfully without some tools.

To increase the likelihood of your stress offering you greater strength, pull out your favorite mind-body tools for even the smaller stuff. Stuck in traffic? Practice yogic breathing or try a body scan. Find yourself in a scuffle at work? Try reframing the experience as a cue that something may need more attention—whether it be a catalyst to improve office communication or a reminder that you need to take five minutes for yourself each day. And don’t underestimate the benefits of simply tolerating a little discomfort (no tool other than acceptance needed), knowing that it too will pass.

The upside of stress is that we are challenging ourselves to get out of our comfort zone, and expanding what we thought was possible. Even in yoga, there might be moments of stress, such as when practicing a new pose, but that stress helps expand our awareness about who we have known ourselves to be.

Next time you feel stressed, check in with yourself. Is this the kind of stress that needs to be curbed, or welcomed? Then adjust from there. Like so many things in life and in yoga, it is all an experiment. Let the idea of healthy stress be part of your understanding of yourself and of the variety of experiences that come your way.

If you tend to have a positive attitude—a self-confident sense that you can get through a rough period—you’re more likely to have a healthy response than if you perceive stress as catastrophic. Another powerful factor is social support. If you have friends and family you can turn to during a stressful period, you’re more likely to handle the stress well. Social support buffers stress. That’s something most of us know intuitively. Now we’re beginning to understand it biologically. Researchers have identified a hormone called oxytocin that reduces the stress response.

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