By now most of us have learned about “good” and “bad” cholesterol. HDL is the good stuff and LDL, the bad. You want to lower LDL and raise HDL. But did you know that stress is very similar? Yes, there is a huge difference between negative stress and creative stress.

HDL actually scrubs the blood vessels of LDL, which clogs your arteries with plaque. Creative stress, similarly, transforms negative stress and turns it into the energy you need to realize your potential and to be fulfilled.

Dealing with bad stress is as urgent as dealing with bad cholesterol; we know that negative stress, like elevated LDL, can become a killer. To bring up the good cholesterol and lower the bad, you have to make dietary and lifestyle changes and commit to exercise. To transform negative stress you also have to work with your default response to difficult and challenging situations, be willing to examine core attitudes and beliefs and demonstrate the capacity to enact change. Here are three steps to engaging healthy, creative stress.

First, you have to get clear about your default response to anything that negatively stresses you out.  To help figure this out go back to the first really big disappointment or really challenging situation you encountered as a child. Maybe your birthday party was cancelled, you encountered a bully, you didn’t get the star part in the school play, or you had a higher order of challenges such as the loss of a parent. Was your default response to lash out at others, have tantrums, blame others, sulk, become the victim who carried their wound with them all the time, did you look for quick distractions or go to your room and self-medicate with sweets and candy bars?

Now think of other times in your life and the difficulties which beset you and see how the pattern plays out. Whenever you have developed a way of not dealing with difficult energy—whether you internalize or push back—that energy stays and lodges in your body/mind. You can call this the basic physics of stress: Negative stress is energy that is stuck and which has not been transformed.

Once you figure out your default response, step two is having a direct and truthful response to whatever challenge or obstacle life puts in your path. Instead of blame, victimization or any kind of brushing aside or even sedating to block the difficulty that is coming at you, you ask yourself what it can teach you. Stress wants a truthful response: If it doesn’t get one, it hangs around, raises blood pressure, and does things to remind you that you are not dealing honestly with the root causes of your challenges.

Step two is not about having immediate right answers—it is about authentic struggle.  Confusion is more authentic than pretending you have the answer when you don’t. Remember even Mother Teresa struggled with her doubts! Negative stress loves the false positive, which says you can pretend that all is well when it isn’t. But the false positive is a negative in disguise and it will just wait for you until you are really ready to be honest with yourself and others.

When you finally begin to see that this kind of deeper integrity opens up the real questions about your values and your life’s purpose, you have begun to discover that stress can be your greatest teacher. This is the beginning of the third step: Every time a challenge comes your way you appreciate that, however difficult, it is going to help you grow and that is what you want more than anything in the world. You have a new kind of focus and determination; you are no longer expending so much energy to keep going around your difficulties or even numbing yourself so that you won’t feel the pain. You have developed an appetite for growth and you have regained some powerful sense of your true potential. You have begun to experience a strange kind of gratitude for all that is given and even a level of peace that you had not thought possible.

We know now that people live longer and have more indicators of wellness and happiness when they meet their challenges, when they focus on quality relationships, when they are dedicated to deeper service to family, friends, and community and when they learn to forgive and be grateful. All those things take courage to be truly authentic. Creative stress teaches us how to grasp the nettle rather than always avoiding it for fear of the sting.

Yes, it is true people face sometimes unbearable challenges, and yet the ones who thrive and who become models and even beacons of inspiration are the ones who transform every kind of negative stress and turn it into creative and compassionate action. And the remarkable thing in this regard is the so-called average people—the survivors of Katrina, the miners’ wives, the veterans, and those who have lost their jobs and homes—are often the ones who teach us how to turn our greatest traumas into opportunities for growth and learning.

James O’Dea a member of the extended faculty of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) and author of Creative Stress: A Path for Evolving Souls Living Through Personal and Planetary Upheaval. www.jamesodea.com.

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