The One Counterintuitive Trick for Enduring Stress
Four (sometimes five!) days a week my wife and I drive to the gym. For 60-75 minutes we place heavier and heavier weights on bars, lift them in myriad ways and then place them back where we found them.
We’ve been doing this for well over a year now and I enjoy it about as much as my dogs enjoy laying on the floor when their beds are being washed.
Working out kind of sucks.
And yet, every week we do it. Why?
Before I answer that, let’s talk a bit about pain since stress and pain manifest in similar ways in our brain.
A common belief is pain and stress are all the same and all bad. But a couple fascinating studies suggest this may not be the case.
In one of these studies researchers showed that if we believe a painful experience will benefit us (eg, by enhancing muscle performance), it can significantly improve our ability to endure the discomfort.
In another study patients were divided into three groups; the first were given a pain medication but told nothing about it, the second were provided the same pain medication and told it was highly effective, and the last group were given the same pain medication and told it was ineffective.
When measured for pain when exposed to an uncomfortable stimulus, the group who were told the same medication was highly effective experienced twice as much reduction in pain. Of particular interest, the group who were told the medication was ineffective experienced no pain-killing benefit whatsoever.
Studies like this illustrate something really big. The mindset we subscribe to in reference to our discomfort has a substantial impact on how difficult the discomfort is to endure.
The mindset we subscribe to in reference to our discomfort has a substantial impact on how difficult the discomfort is to endure.
Which brings me back to my annoying gym habit.
I’ve heard stories of folks learning to love working out. I’m fairly certain they have some form of undiagnosed psychosis.
For me, lifting weights is not at all fun. Sometimes it’s downright painful. So why do I do it?
Because I tell myself about all the ways I’ll benefit from doing so.
My workout regiment strengthens my muscles and bones. It helps me improve my soccer skills and stamina. Working out allows me to eat the things I love (Pizza! Ice cream!) and maintain a healthy weight.
And check this out – research shows (and I can attest to personally) that regular exercise is a highly effective way of reducing depressive symptoms and increasing well-being!
So how does this apply to you my veterinary professional friend?
OK, yes, I’ll tell you I think you should find a way to make exercise a habit. Even if it totally sucks.
But that’s not the purpose of this article.
What I’m suggesting here is the one counterintuitive trick for enduring stress. Let’s call it, “Benefit Spotting.”
Before, during, or immediately after a stressful event or day in your work, rather than focus only on how much it will/did suck, take 2 minutes and tell yourself 1 or 2 ways the stress you endure will benefit you.
Maybe dealing with this difficult client will help you grow your patience as a practitioner?
Maybe working this double-booked day will give you a chance to practice your time-management skills?
Perhaps the back-to-back euthanasias will make you more compassionate?
Whatever the benefit(s) you identify are up to you. But point them out and share them with yourself.
The science is clear that how we think about our pains and stresses impact how our mind and body respond in often powerful ways.
Who knows, maybe you’ll learn to love lifting the heavy weights of your work.
- Written by Josh Vaisman