Make Your Stress Work for You

StressedWe all face times when seemingly negative feelings—stress, impatience, nervousness—affect our ability to perform at our best, or simply rob us of our peace. But what if we could turn this around? What if those same feelings could actually be positive, or at least wield less negative influence?

New research as reported by the Association for Psychological Science indicates that in a stressful situation, simply telling ourselves that our stress is good for us can change its effect on us. In experiments, people who were giving a speech (stressful for many people) were more confident and less anxious when they were instructed to focus on the value of stress in high-level performance. Others who were taking a stressful and high-stakes exam performed better when they were told that their nervous stomachs and pumping hearts were known to improve, not worsen, performance.

Simply telling ourselves that our stress is good for us can change our state of mind and our performance. I wonder how we could change our day-to-day experience by applying this in our lives. For example:

You’re impatient for results: Value your impatience. Acknowledge that it keeps you on your toes. Accept it as a normal part of your process, something to live with, not fight with. Maybe this way you can make peace with your impatience and not have it feel like a negative force.

You’re nervous meeting agents, editors, or other people you perceive as important: Tell yourself that your symptoms of nervousness are tools that will help you present yourself well and make a positive impression. Remind yourself, “Nervousness is good! It will help me perform at my best!”

You’re stressed about a presentation or public speaking event: Tell yourself that butterflies in your stomach and a racing heart are symptoms that are known to improve public speaking performance.

You’re anxious because you have so much to accomplish and so little time: Recognize your anxiety as exactly the stimulus you need to be as productive as possible, and embrace it as a motivator.

What do you think? Are these strategies worth a try? Do you think they’ll work?


P.S. I was alerted to this concept by a brief piece on the HBR blogs: “Handle Stress by Whispering Sweet Nothings to Yourself

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Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Dale S. Rogers on September 25, 2012 at 2:20 PM

    I read a book about anxiety & stress which indicates it’s okay for a short period of time, but continued stress can be physically damaging. So it’s okay for what you’re doing at the moment, but then you need to calm down.

  2. » Bookmark Monday! R.S.Sharkey on September 10, 2012 at 9:00 AM

    […] Make Your Stress Work for You  Simply telling ourselves that our stress is good for us can change our state of mind and our performance. I wonder how we could change our day-to-day experience by applying this in our lives. […]

  3. Friday Features #21 - Yesenia Vargas on September 10, 2012 at 1:23 AM

    […] Make Your Stress Work For You by Rachelle Gardner at Rachelle Gardner […]

  4. Melinda Viergever Inman on September 7, 2012 at 9:41 AM

    Great list!! I’ll add two more.

    11. Go outside and quietly observe God’s world. Soak in the beauty of God’s creation. Be overwhelmed by the majesty of our glorious Creator’s masterpiece.

    12. When the powerful moment of connection between you and God occurs during worship or bible study, whip out your notebook and gush out those words.

  5. Joe Pote on September 6, 2012 at 3:12 PM

    Thank you, Rachell, for another great post with good, practical, life applications.

    Thank you, even more for hosting a great blog with lots of good discussion.

    I get a real kick out of reading all the comments on here a couple of times each week. 🙂

  6. vic hansen on September 6, 2012 at 2:20 PM

    The advantage of leaving something to the last minute is that it only takes a minute.

  7. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on September 6, 2012 at 4:24 AM

    Actually, no. Stress kills.

    While the idea that improved performance can result from putting a positive spin of the value of stress, it seems to me a Band-Aid, at best.

    The problem is that stress is a physiological reaction that changes blood chemistry to initiate – at its most basic – a fight or flight response. Cortisol is one of the major chemicals secreted, and it don’t play nice.

    Using what’s essentially a crude biofeedback method to effectively override the response can, and probably will, result in the body developing a higher set-point for the production of ‘fight or flight’ chemicals.

    Much better to lower the set point pre-emptively, using centering prayer or meditation.

    Better for you, better for those around you.

  8. Amy Morgan on September 6, 2012 at 12:05 AM

    I am constantly working to overcome stress and looking at it from a positive point of view and using these tips may just be the trick. And I love the thought of getting those butterflies in a formation!

  9. Peter DeHaan on September 5, 2012 at 5:55 PM

    I can often redirect the stress from having too much work to do into a most productive day. But I can’t do that for too many days in a row or I will crash.

  10. Kristin Laughtin on September 5, 2012 at 5:28 PM

    I’m going to try this with my next round of revisions, which is sure to cause high levels of stress and other negative emotions. I’m trying to think of positive spins to put on possible scenarios. I still think the best one is “this will make your book better and you a better writer”, even if it’s painful.

  11. Leanne Bridges on September 5, 2012 at 5:12 PM

    What a great way to think. Thanks for this block, Rachelle.

  12. Jennifer Major @Jjumping on September 5, 2012 at 3:04 PM

    I grew up in a huge urban church. There were lawyers, business people, gazillionaires, you name it, I knew them. So I wasn’t intimidated at all to just chat with them. Some people saw that as a “lack of respect”, but how am I supposed to “show proper respect” beyond a normal conversation with someone I’d known personally for years? If I started fawning over certain friends who were considered to be quite important, they’d give me the gears. When I meet someone new, I read the mood and engage them on the level that seems appropriate. But singing? I start with my eyes open, then for some reason, my lid nerves fail and can’t work again until the song is done.


  13. Rachelle Christensen on September 5, 2012 at 2:31 PM

    I love this concept! I often try to tone down my stress levels by reminding myself that I have handled many tough things and got through them successfully. I also remind myself that I have 4 children who are happy, clean, and fed and I think that always deserves a gold star! 🙂

  14. E.Arroyo on September 5, 2012 at 1:09 PM

    They have to work, or I’ll crawl back in my box and live life-free. =)

  15. Brianna on September 5, 2012 at 12:33 PM

    There are some great tips and tricks here. Even if they don’t work, as they might not for some people, it might have enough of a placebo effect that they can get through their speech, event, whatever.

  16. Lindsay Harrel on September 5, 2012 at 12:25 PM

    I try to remember (not always successful!) that stress means I have a lot going on in my life, which translates to a lot of blessings.

    Yes, I’m stressed to meet with agents and editors at ACFW in two weeks…but I’m so blessed to be in this position, with a novel to pitch and the funds to attend a huge writers conference.

    There’s blessing in the stress if we search for it. Great post, Rachelle.

  17. Daphne Gray-Grant on September 5, 2012 at 12:03 PM

    I do public speaking and those butterflies are FANTASTIC. They do more than “keep you on your toes”….

    *they give you a sense of energy and drama,
    *they help you better connect with your audience by keeping you hyper-attuned to what your audience is feeling, and,
    *they keep you REAL. No one wants to watch an automaton speaking. They want to see a real person.

    Stress can be a great tool if you know how to use it.

  18. Dave Knickerbocker on September 5, 2012 at 12:03 PM

    Works for me! I’ve taught congregations on Sunday mornings hundreds of times, but I’m nervous almost every one of them. The times I’ve not been to anxious are the times I’ve bombed. Thanks for the post. I’ve had a feeling it’s true, but this makes it official.

  19. Meghan Carver on September 5, 2012 at 11:42 AM

    So much of life — and faith — is determined by our state of mind. So many of these “great ideas” that come out of the world of psychology are actually rooted in the Bible. Philippians 4:6 tells us to be anxious for nothing but to pray about everything, with thanksgiving. Verse 8 continues with instructing us on what to think about: whatever is true, noble, lovely, praiseworthy. It’s always a necessary reminder, though, no matter where it comes from. Thanks, Rachelle.

    • Susan Bourgeois on September 5, 2012 at 12:09 PM

      It’s amazing how scripture relates to what we experience and know about life.

      My mother used to tell me to pray about something that bothered me. I now tell my children to know God is with them at times of uncertainty, he has a plan. I,like my Mom, tell my children to put their worries or fears in God’s hands.

      We read articles that stress the importance of writing down the many things we are grateful for in life as a a reminder to take the place or de-emphasize the negativities we feel.

      It’s incredible that so much of what we read is right there in the scriptures.

  20. Kathy Rouser on September 5, 2012 at 11:25 AM

    After finishing a year of an intense full-time health care program, I can say that it’s true that a healthy amount of stress helps you succeed. I always did better on a test I had felt a healthy amount of stress about, because I didn’t slack on my studying. The same can be said about preparing for the clinical side. There were many times I told myself throughout the year, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Phil. 4:13

    And I have to say deadlines can spur me on to do my best as well. What great advice to deal with meeting editors or agents and giving pitches. I can be quite shy and tongue-tied around important people. If I get on the hamster wheel of stress and let it overwhelm me, it’s counter-productive; but if I can use it to my advantage to talk myself into doing better, then that’s great!

    Thanks for sharing this concept, Rachelle. It’s very helpful. 🙂

  21. Brian Henwood on September 5, 2012 at 11:24 AM

    Typically, there are two reasons why I get nervous speaking publically or with someone of “importance.”
    1. I’m not as prepared as I should be
    2. The person is a potential “career builder”
    I find that if I know the information i am speaking about backwards and forwards, I tend to be much less anxious. I fell prepared for anything someone might throw at me. That said, it’s rare that I feel unprepared when speaking about one of my novels. Who knows them better than me? They’re my children.
    So, usually my stress comes from speaking to someone who can help me become published; at least it used to. I tend to expect rejection now. 🙂

  22. BK Jackson (@BKJacksonAZ) on September 5, 2012 at 10:39 AM

    So you’re saying that when I wake up with a roiling stomach after a holiday weekend, already physically upset about returning to work, that muttering “It’s time to go back to the place of torment” isn’t working for me? 😎

  23. Cherry Odelberg on September 5, 2012 at 10:32 AM

    Very useful information.
    I know this works – thanks for the reminder.

  24. Susan Bourgeois on September 5, 2012 at 10:27 AM

    I love this post! We do have the ability to reconstruct our thoughts. Isn’t that what cognitive behavior is all about?

    Much of the way we react to certain situations is habit; it’s familiar.

    We can change that process over time by doing exactly as what the post and many of the commentators have suggested.

    I like the suggestion of curiosity. Many of us tend to be afraid of what we don’t know. If we look at stressful situations as an adventure it may soften the fear of uncertainty.

    Writing my novel is an adventure for me. I look forward to the part where I send my query to agents that fall within my category of fiction.

    What could be more exciting than this process?

    It’s funny but the new word that I project to my adult children is “patience”.

    Think about how important patience is in life. Rarely do things happen when we want them to happen, whether it be a promotion or one of life’s major events.

    Things happen when they are meant to happen and usually when we’re at the point where we want to give up.

    Stress is an important motivator. Not the bad type stress; we must replace negativities with positive applications.

    Good stress gets us headed in the right direction and if it feels bad, we have to turn fast into a thought that motivates us.

  25. V.V. Denman on September 5, 2012 at 10:11 AM

    Wanna know how your blog reminds me of my preacher? Every Sunday, no matter what he preaches on, it hits me right where I am. Your blog often does the same thing. Thank you for giving me such practical advice I’ll use immediately.

    Now back to the stress . . .

  26. Jeanne T on September 5, 2012 at 10:05 AM

    Such great points today, Rachelle. I think, sometimes it’s difficult to take my eyes off the thing giving me stress and find a positive way to view it. Great idea, embracing stress. When I find a positive way to view a situation, my whole mindset works better. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. 🙂

  27. Cheryl Barker on September 5, 2012 at 10:04 AM

    I love this strategy, Rachelle. Thanks so much for sharing it with us. I think it could indeed revolutionize the way we view stress — if we remember to apply it! 🙂

  28. Sissie Dale on September 5, 2012 at 9:49 AM

    Fabulous advice! I was whining just yesterday about how stressed and overwhelmed I was feeling and then in the same breath said aloud..”Gosh, there was a time a few years ago where I would have welcomed such deadlines! Quit your whining!” So I did 🙂
    You are right, stress can be a welcome thing, it’s spurring us on!

  29. Lisa on September 5, 2012 at 9:32 AM

    Great advice! I love taking something that can be perceived as negative and forming into something that can be redeemed!

    I am so guilty of all the above, I need to take these words to heart:)

    • Cherry Odelberg on September 5, 2012 at 10:33 AM

      Yes! Taking something perceived as negative and redeeming it.

  30. Martha Ramirez on September 5, 2012 at 9:30 AM

    BEST advice ever!! Thank you!Def be telling myself this from now on.

  31. Connie Almony on September 5, 2012 at 9:22 AM

    This is so true!!! My cousin told me this many years ago, just before a singing performance. I never forgot it. And when I look at those performances, the ones where I did my worst were the ones I didn’t stress over. She taught me to use my nerves to make me a better singer. It helped tremendously.

  32. Wendy Paine Miller on September 5, 2012 at 9:17 AM

    Cool new finding. Like it. I’ll use it.

    I tend to find outlets. Whenever I view something as a challenge, something to learn I find it’s much easier to get through.

    Stress can also motivate us to be more creative. And that’s always a good thing.

    ~ Wendy

  33. Melinda Viergever Inman on September 5, 2012 at 9:07 AM

    I like the fact that you’re urging us to embrace the stress. This is, indeed, stressful to pitch and query and wait. There’s no doubt about it. This is solid, practical, and, hopefully, encouraging advice. Now to employ it and see how the power of harnessed stress works. Thanks, Rachelle!

  34. Marielena on September 5, 2012 at 8:48 AM

    Thanks, Rachelle, Great post.

    My take on this: What we resist, persists. So, yes, embracing the stress can be valuable. It frees us from using all that energy to fight off what we dread. We can breathe into it, accept it, and then channel that energy, as you said, in more productive ways.

    Another tip: Try curiosity. Instead of giving a situation so much emotional weight, just be curious. Ask yourself, “I wonder what will happen when …”

    • Johnnie on September 5, 2012 at 9:22 AM

      Love this tip. And writers should be curious anyway. Thanks!

    • Jeanne T on September 5, 2012 at 9:55 AM

      Great tip! I need to try that. 🙂

  35. carol brill on September 5, 2012 at 7:42 AM

    This is a new way of looking at stress for me. Thanks for the insights carol

  36. Mercey Valley on September 5, 2012 at 7:23 AM

    This is a timely reminder for me on a couple of fronts, and for the main part this is how I spend much of my working time – pushed to the limit, having to produce by way of necessity, and not just something that will ‘do’ but will really rock the end result in a good way. The clients are always happy, so that’s one indication 🙂

    Maybe I’m a masochist, but occasionally I do leave things just a teency bit later in awareness I have to get them done because to leave them undone is totally not an option (I also don’t like chewing up too much of my margin). The irony is that I write at my most urgent best right before I need to walk out the door or have an appointment and wish I could keep going.

  37. Georgie on September 5, 2012 at 7:19 AM

    Hi Rachelle,
    Thank you for another great post.

    These are great strategies! I suffer greatly from nerves & a lack of confidence at meeting new people & giving speeches! I will definitely be giving these a go and fingers crossed they work for me.

  38. Becky Doughty on September 5, 2012 at 4:20 AM

    I look for “sweet somethings” in scripture and make them my little mantras; like this one: Psalm 73:26 “My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

    Or this one: 2 Cor 12:9 And He has said to me, “’My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (Some days I wander around singing the Martin J. Nystrom song just to keep me bolstered.)


    • Jeanne T on September 5, 2012 at 9:53 AM

      Great idea. I’ve done that for trials in my life, but haven’t thought to do that when I feel nervous. 🙂

    • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on September 5, 2012 at 2:18 PM

      I sing hymns, or worship stuff, in my van. Except at red lights. Then I’m the drummer.

  39. P. J. Casselman on September 5, 2012 at 2:30 AM

    Thank you for yet another helpful blog, Rachelle. Yes they are worth a try. While I have no problem speaking or singing in public (I’ve done both for groups of ten to ten thousand), I have a horrible time meeting people. My eyelids flutter, I get tongue tied, and I can’t think. The only way to survive is to keep quiet, smile and nod. Once I’m comfortable, I’m fine, but getting there is a struggle. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to employ these principles soon. Man, I hope not.

  40. Keli Gwyn on September 5, 2012 at 2:27 AM

    I followed this advice when my debut novel released in July. My plate was heaped to overflowing: my inbox was inundated with a blessing of blog invitations, I was planning my launch party, and I had other signings and events as well. To say I was busy would have been an understatement. I was stressed, but when I talked about my stress, I stressed the fact that it was the positive kind and that I was doing my utmost to enjoy the experience. That attitude adjustment really helped.

  41. Gabrielle Meyer on September 5, 2012 at 2:13 AM

    When I had the lead in my senior play my drama coach told me the same thing. She said that nerves are a good thing, they help you stay aware of your performance and prompt you to do your best.

    Our mind is a powerful thing and it’s amazing what we can do when we use it for our benefit. There have been many times I was able to do something I was nervous to do because I “talked” myself into it. I love that science is proving Scripture to be true! “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.” Proverbs 23:7

    • P. J. Casselman on September 5, 2012 at 2:20 AM

      Ooo nice application of Scripture!

  42. Jill Farris on September 5, 2012 at 2:08 AM

    I teach public speaking and always remind people that the very best speakers don’t mind having butterflies because that nervousness keeps them sharp.

    I tell my students, everyone has butterflies but we are going to teach those butterflies to fly in formation!

    Jill Farris

    • P. J. Casselman on September 5, 2012 at 2:19 AM

      “Teach those butterflies to fly in formation.” <–That's a great quote. I would have used that when I taught Introduction to Preaching.

    • Jeanne T on September 5, 2012 at 9:51 AM

      Love the whole idea of butterflies flying in formation. Reminds me of military flyers. I’m going to remember this the next time butterflies visit my stomach via nervousness.

    • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on September 5, 2012 at 2:08 PM

      If I’m nervous, my kids will say “are they butterflies, or Nazgul?”.

      It helps to have a scale.

      • Joe Pote on September 6, 2012 at 3:09 PM

        Glad to hear you’ve introduced your kids to Tolkein.

        These things are important!

    • Michael Seese on September 6, 2012 at 12:31 AM

      Whenever I speak in front of a crowd, I just remember that old adage: picture yourself naked and …

      Wait, that’s not right, is it?

      • Joe Pote on September 6, 2012 at 3:09 PM

        LOL! I did a double-take before realizing your misquote was intentional. 🙂