Stress management for improved well-being—Part 2: How you choose to view stress is entirely up to you

Generally speaking, the word “stress” calls to mind negative images of hardship and suffering, leading many people to feel that the world would be a better place if stress didn’t exist. But stress has long played a crucial role in the survival of living things and, as such, cannot be completely done away with.

So, how should we deal with stress in today’s stressful world? And how might it lead to improving our well-being?

Mizuto Aoto, applied neuroscientist and founder and CEO of DAncing Einstein, who published the book HAPPY STRESS: How Stress Evolves Your Brain (in Japanese) in April 2021, contributed today’s article to shed some light on this topic. This is the second part of the two-part series: “How you choose to view stress is entirely up to you.”

Please excuse me for the sudden question, but what are you currently focusing your attention on?

For example, are you reading this article at home? If you are, then there’s a good chance that if you look around you’ll see, among other things, a desk with a PC on it, papers, writing utensils, a coffee mug, family members, and the view outside the window. Additionally, you are also exposed to countless other forms of stimuli, including such auditory inputs as the sound of the air conditioner or someone talking, as well as tactile sensations from the clothes you happen to be wearing.

Yet, strangely, do you notice that your attention when reading this article is focused almost exclusively on this what is written?

The brain and stress

We are constantly receiving various stimuli from both our external and internal worlds. But our brains are incapable of processing a large amount of information at once. According to the results of one study,* supposedly only about 1/1,000th of all the information delivered to the brain gets targeted for recognition.

In addition, not only is the scope of our recognition limited but our brains also tend to focus on negative things, such as things that we don’t do well and areas in which we are lacking.

This tendency is known as negativity bias.

And since we are more likely to focus our attention on things of a negative nature, it is likely that this will lead to the stress response.

Also, when we hear the word “stress,” many of us form a negative image. But, essentially, stress serves as a notification function to protect us from danger. Therefore, it can positively influence our performance by boosting our concentration and contributing to our growth and happiness.

In the book, HAPPY STRESS: How Stress Evolves Your Brain, this type of stress is called positive stress or “bright stress” while stress that leads to a decline in brain function is called negative stress or “dark stress.”

But with regard to the mechanism involved and the chemical substances that are synthesized, both bright stress and dark stress are essentially the same. How you perceive stress and how you live from day to day can determine whether the stress that you experience is bright stress or dark stress.

Cultivating positive thinking

As mentioned above, given the characteristics of the brain, we are prone to negative thinking. Therefore, we often find ourselves getting trapped in a loop of negative thoughts, thus increasing our own dark stress. But by consciously looking on the positive side of things, we are capable of developing positive neural circuits.

One of the fundamental principles of neurons states, “Use it or lose it.” If you use them, they will develop; if you don’t, you will lose them. Positive thinking is neither attributable to our personality nor a talent that we are born with. Although there will be differences depending on the person, it is a skill that can be developed through continued conscious use.

That is why it is so important to regularly be aware of and try to see the positive side of things. By maintaining such an awareness, you can choose the type of information to keep in your mind. But without awareness, you will use the same neural pathways leading to the previous thoughts and actions that, due to negativity bias, make it easier to focus on the negative.

By using and gradually cultivating our positive neural pathways on a regular basis, the ways in which we think and behave will change.

The choice is yours to make

Once you begin paying attention to the positive aspects of life, the way that you perceive the world will change. The stress that you had previously experienced as dark stress will become bright stress.

We can consciously choose what to focus our attention on, just as you have chosen to focus your attention on this article. After accepting such brain mechanisms as the limitations of attention and negativity bias, why not direct your limited attention to the things that you like and will make you happy?

* Willis, J., Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher, Assn. for Supervision & Curriculum

The brain recognizes only a limited amount of the information it is given. And if we don’t pay attention, much of that limited amount of information that it does recognize is likely to be negative due to negativity bias. But by consciously looking at the positive side of things on a regular basis, we can strengthen our positive neural circuits and perceive stress as bright stress.

Why not leverage these brain mechanisms to make bright stress a powerful ally in your work and use it to improve your performance? Doing so can enable you to spend more time feeling happy and enjoy more well-being in your life.

This column was an original article contributed by Mr. Mizuto Aoto.

Related links (in Japanese):
DAncing Einstein

HAPPY STRESS: How Stress Evolves Your Brain by Mizuto Aoto
Based on the latest brain research! How to Raise an Autonomous Child by Yuichi Kudo, Mizuto Aoto
4 Focus: Four Focus for Brain Clarity by Mizuto Aoto
BRAIN DRIVEN: The Brain State for Enhanced Performance by Mizuto Aoto