For decades, scientists and researchers have been telling us that stress is bad for us. Stress makes you sick. It changes your brain chemistry. It can and will eventually kill you.

The best thing we can do, we typically hear, is to reduce stress in our lives.

This is pretty discouraging news for entrepreneurs, who report significantly higher levels of stress than the average person. When you start a business, stress is an everyday reality that can't be avoided. Does this mean you're doomed?

The surprising benefits of stress

Not so fast, according to recent research. Stress isn't necessarily bad, and can in fact be harnessed to make you more productive and content. It can invigorate you, push you to achieve a goal, connect you to team members and loved ones, help you learn and grow, and provide a greater sense of meaning in your life.⁠

You've probably experienced these benefits of stress yourself, or seen it in others. It's what causes that light in someone's eyes or the fire in his or her belly when faced with a problem to solve or a challenge to overcome. It can feel like a rush, a high, pushing you beyond what you thought you were capable of.

It's true that stress can lead to negative impacts like anxiety, impaired thinking, and illness--but only if you think it will.

You can choose how stress impacts you

Here's the remarkable thing: If you assume stress will harm your health and productivity, it will. If you see it as a positive thing--something that energizes you, focuses you, and helps you make good decisions--you will be even better off than people with minimal stressors in their lives.

According to The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, by Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, your mindset about stress is what ultimately determines your physiological and psychological responses to hardships.

Study after study has shown that the way we think about things can dramatically alter our lives. We are experts at living up to self-fulfilling prophecies.

If you've been assuming that stress is bad for you, here's the good news: your mindset can be easily changed--beginning today. If you can think differently, you will act differently, and your long-term outcomes will be different.

Alia Crum and Peter Salovey, leading stress researchers at Yale University, have found that successful interventions only require 30-60 minutes. Participants usually receive some kind of training on the benefits of stress and then are asked to write or talk about it.

The effects of these interventions can last for years, positively impacting students' GPAs, professionals' career path, and objective health measurements. The entire trajectory of your life could change.

Three steps to changing your mindset

Social scientist have found that the most effective mindset interventions have three steps:

  1. Learn the new point of view.
  2. Complete an exercise that supports the adoption and application of the new mindset.
  3. Share what you've learned with others.

If you've read this far in this article, you've already made great headway in step one. Congratulations!

Now for step two. McGonigal provides several exercises in her book, many of which help us link the stress we experience to meaning, purpose, and values. One simple approach is to journal-about what matters most to you and how your daily stressors are actually connected to those priorities.

Even ten minutes spent reflecting in this way can change our mindset in the long run. The challenges that previously felt like burdens to us can be transformed into meaningful activities that propel us toward an important goal.

If we are putting effort into something we care about, stress is inevitable. This is as true of entrepreneurs as anyone else: stress and meaning come as a pair, and cannot be separated.

To accomplish the third step, plan a coffee date with your spouse, business partner, or a trusted friend. Tell them what you've learned about the benefits of stress and how that's transforming the way you see your business and the startup life.

Soon enough, you'll be well on your way to making the most of the stress in your life and turning it into a force for good--for yourself and those around you.

Published on: Jul 14, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.