“Stress is bad for you! Too much of it will kill you!”
Google a few vague symptoms and the word ‘stress’ and simply wait for the words ‘cancer’ and ‘death’ to flash up on your screen…!
Stressing about stress is getting out of hand…
But there is actually another way to think about stress. There is an alternate, but equally true reality in which stress can make a positive influence in our lives.
An article I read suggests that it’s not stress itself, but stressing about stressing which is zapping our happiness, and detracting from our peak performance. The researchers were from Yale (Alicia Crum & Peter Salovey) and Harvard alumni (Shawn Achor), so I’m confident that they know a thing or two about stress.
Crum and Salovey found that by changing someone’s perception of the stress that they were under, they could actually change how stress affected them physically.
Types of stress can be roughly grouped into 3 categories:
- Positive stress elicits a moderate and short-term response and is a normal part of healthy development in mastering a new skills or dealing with frustration.
- Tolerable stress elicits a stronger and longer-lasting response (such as in the case of the death of a loved one), but social support helps us to cope.
- Toxic stress responses occur if we are placed under severe and prolonged stress, such as in cases of extreme poverty or domestic violence. Toxic stress in children affects brain development, and may lead to physical illness and mental health difficulties without appropriate intervention (Oberklaid, 2007).
Primarily, the stress I’m referring to in this post is the positive and tolerable types.
In a group of nearly 400 employees of an international financial institution, it was found that those employees who had a “stress can enhance my performance” mindset reported having better health, greater life satisfaction, and superior work performance over those who had a “stress is bad for me” mindset. Moreover,when participants were shown videos about the positive and real effects of stress on the body, the researchers observed a 23 percent drop in stress-related symptoms (fatigue, back ache etc).
The key to this shift in thinking is to harness what Shawn Achor calls a new but equally true reality. Positive psychology is not about sugar coating things and just thinking happy thoughts, but presenting the scientific evidence on the ways that stress can be motivating and energising, rather than simply debilitating.
What is stress, exactly? The psychological component includes the experience or anticipation of adversity. The physical component then involves the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (what happens during fight or flight), and the inhibition of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
During stress, the body releases both adrenalin and cortisol. Both of these hormones have been given a bad rap for making us “sick”. Chronic exposure to stress hormones can take a toll on our immune system, making us feel flat and worn out, but there’s also plenty of evidence that stress can enhance immunity and create mental toughness.
Interestingly, the dominant theory that stress is bad for us hasn’t stood up to scientific rigor. The amount of stress we encounter is actually a surprisingly poor predictor of whether it will leave us worse (or better) off.
Positive benefits of stress (taken from Achor, 2013):
- Hormones released during stress boost performance on cognitive tasks and memory
- The narrowing of perspective we get from flight or flight responses keeps us alert and improves processing speed
- Stress can fuel the underlying biological processes implicated in physical recovery and immunity. Research at Stanford has indicated that stress before knee surgery actually helped patients heal significantly faster.
- Stress and adversity can, in some cases, foster mental toughness, deepen social bonds with others, strengthen life priorities and build a sense of purpose and meaning (post traumatic growth)
It seems then, that stress is inevitable, but its effects are not. Put simply, trying to fight stress itself is futile. What we need to do is focus on making meaning out of it. So, if your child is stressed about an exam, use it as an opportunity to encourage positive and equally true statements (e.g., it’s an opportunity to show your skills, and see how well you can concentrate when you put your mind to it).
It’s still about being sensible. This research isn’t about debunking all of the negative impacts of stress. Each of us has limited time and energy, and burnout is still a real phenomenon. However, if you can learn to tease out the less known but equally true and positive outcomes from stress, then your chances of being healthier, happier and more effective are increased.
- Achor, S. (2013). Before Happiness: The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading Happiness, and Sustaining Positive Change. Crown Business.
- Achor, S. (2011). The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. Virgin Digital.
- Crum, A., Salovey, P. & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104, 716-733. doi:10.1037/a003120
- You can also watch Shawn Achor’s incredibly interesting and funny TED talk on happiness and success here