Stress is a hot topic in the workplace and we are all familiar with the common narrative: stress is bad for you… so do everything you can to reduce it. However, more recent research into the bio-psychology of stress is revealing a new line of thinking.
The way you think about stress is more important than the stress itself. Read on to find out more.
Stress is a short term physical and emotional reaction to external triggers, challenges or threats. This response usually goes away once the situation has resolved. Experiencing stress is a natural and important function of the human body. It is designed to keep us safe from danger by triggering three responses:
The amygdala is a part of the brain that processes emotions. When it senses danger, it starts a chain of signals which ultimately release adrenaline into the body ready to respond to the source of stress. Our stress-response evolved from the need to tackle more physical and life-threatening dangers (running away from predators, fighting competitors). Now the type of stressors that we experience are usually more work related or social (running late, getting a bad appraisal) and don’t pose a physical danger, but still gain the same response in the body.
Short term stress symptoms fade away quickly after the challenge has been dealt with. However, if people are exposed to stress for a long time – or they continue to worry about something – then the body will continue to release adrenaline and cortisol in the body. Long term exposure to these stress chemicals is known as chronic stress, which has lots of negative outcomes such as increased risk of heart disease, poor concentration, muscle tension, sleep disorders, mood swings and mental health challenges.
It has long been reported that people who experience high levels of stress have an increased risk of heart disease and premature death. However, more recent studies have found that personal attitude can be an interesting caveat to that.
One study in America (Keller, 2012) analysed 28,753 health questionnaires which asked:
Responses to these questions were compared to participant’s judgements of their own health as well as national death records in the following years.
Their findings were:
The researchers note that simply having a large amount of stress didn’t increase the risk of death, only when people perceived it to be having a negative impact on their health. This shows that your attitude to stress is a significant health factor.
A further study (Jamieson, 2012) dug deeper into the idea of stress attitude. Participants were split into two. Half were told to ignore their stress symptoms and other half were told to see their stress response as beneficial – increased heart rate and adrenaline would help them to perform.
They were then put through the stressful situation of giving an improvised 5 minute presentation on their weaknesses to a panel of ‘experts’ who had been secretly instructed to give disapproving body language. They were given questionnaires afterwards and biological tests were also conducted.
Compared to the ‘ignore stress’ group, those participants who had been coached to reappraise their attitude to stress:
This means that participants who thought about stress positively were less anxious, more confident and more resilient. The physiological findings are even more impressive though, as traditional ‘negative’ stress causes blood vessels to constrict – this is what most likely leads to heart disease and premature death. Thinking about stress positively prevented this constriction and could, ultimately be the key to reducing stress related health conditions.
We have already outlined the symptoms of stress; raised heart rate, fast breathing, sweat, alertness, energy and sharper senses. This can trigger anxieties such as ‘I am over reacting’ or ‘I’m stressed and can’t calm down’.
Rather than battling your body’s response to stress – which is perfectly normal – the research is saying, lean in! Using phrases like these can help you to utilise your stress state in a healthy way:
“I am preparing myself to face a challenge.”
“My body is giving me the energy I need to respond.”
“I am built to handle and overcome this.”
“This is my opportunity to be courageous.”
Making a conscious effort to change your attitude to stress can protect you from some of the worst effects stress has on the body – and help to empower you to actually deal with the cause of stress. This in turn may improve confidence and the achievement of goals.
We may still strive to experience low stress or stress free lives… but until then, learning to appreciate the value of stress and the way your body functions is an excellent step for your health.
If you want support in changing your mindset in the face of challenges then get in touch. The Self Leadership Initiative provides expert workshops and coaching experiences to help people develop healthy foundations of thinking.
Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health psychology: official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 31(5), 677–684.
Jamieson, J. P., Nock, M. K., & Mendes, W. B. (2012). Mind over matter: reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of experimental psychology. General, 141(3), 417–422.