“I’m feeling so stressed these days!”
When was the last time you either said that out loud or silently to yourself, or heard someone else say it? I said it silently to myself last week as I walked along the beach, intending to get ‘centered’ before a meeting. What I noticed in my case was, walking wasn’t changing how I felt. I needed to change my mind.
I’m not alone. In a 2014 study from Western University, stress was the most commonly identified impediment to academic performance and 57.6% of students reported more than average stress. (1). According to the 2010 General Social Survey (GSS), 27% of Canadian workers described their lives on most days as ‘quite a bit’ or ‘extremely’ stressful (2).
In addition to the numbers of people feeling the effects of stress, the message that stress is ‘bad for us’ dominates our view. According to Kelly McGonigal PhD, health psychologist and program developer for the Stanford center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, this belief has a negative effect on our health, longevity and how we handle stress.
In her book The Upside of Stress, McGonigal sites studies, tells stories and uses her experience, to convince us to shift our relationship to stress.
Just five years ago, McGonigal was one of many psychologists, doctors and scientists speaking and writing about the ‘toxic’ effects of stress, offering popular and researched advice on how to reduce stress.
Around that time she came across a study from 1998 that asked almost thirty thousand adults in the US:
“How much stress they had experienced in the past year?” And
“Do you believe that stress is harmful to your health? “
Eight years later the researchers searched public records to see whether stress impacted rates of mortality for these participants. This is what they found according to McGonigal:
“high levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. But that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.”
The researchers concluded that the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful was killing people (3). The question then became “was teaching about how to manage stress, like meditation, exercise and social connection being undermined by also delivering the message stress is toxic?”
Belief has proven to be a powerful predictor in other areas of health. People with a positive view of aging live almost eight years longer than those who have negative stereotypes about aging (4).
In one study, a group of housekeepers from seven hotels were instructed on how the physical demand of their work was affording them recommended amounts of exercise. Only four weeks after the intervention, the informed group perceived themselves to be getting significantly more exercise than before and demonstrated increased health markers such as lower BMI, lower BP and weight loss. In contrast, workers in a control group were not given this information, and did not show any positive change in health markers, despite having the same amount of exercise (5).
“Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake”
These can be stresses such as losing a loved one, or your own health, loss of your reputation, parenting or marriage stress, or being stuck in a traffic jam at the end of a ‘stressful day’ at work.
“Because we use stress to describe so many aspects of life, how you think about it has a profound effect on how you experience life, both everyday aggravations and the biggest life challenges”. Rather than being a sign that something is wrong with you or your life, feeling stressed can be a barometer for how engaged you are in activities and relationships that are personally meaningful.
Psychologists are calling this new science of stress, mindsets.
Researcher Jeremy Jamieson of Rochester University demonstrated how when students were taught how to adopt the mindset of choosing to see their stress as helpful before an exam, it actually contributed to better score outcomes time and time again. The mindset intervention changed how the students interpreted their physical state under stress, in a way that changed its actual effect on performance (6).
According to research by Alia Crum, assistant Professor at Stanford University, shifting from seeing stress as a ‘threat to your life’ and to more of a challenge, for which you have resources to cope, releases a different ratio of stress hormones (7). This mindset shifts feelings of fear and avoidance to motivation, confidence and power. Viewing stress as a helpful part of life, rather than harmful, is associated with better health and emotional well-being (less depression and anxiety), even during periods of high stress and even for people with a pre-disposition to anxiety.
In addition to taking good care of ourselves when under stress, what are some of the mindsets that we can begin to adopt to help us transform our stress for better health and happiness? A few are mentioned below:
- Acknowledge stress when you experience it and notice how it impacts you psychologically and physically. Adopt the mindset that the energy of stress (focused, alert mind, increased motivation, increased ability to recover and learn from stress) is preparing you for something meaningful or for continuing to learn how to cope with something difficult. Trust in these and other resources you may have forgotten you have.
- Recognize that stress is a response to something you care about. See stress as a measure of what your goals are and how much meaning and purpose is in your life. Even the ‘day to day’ hassles of life can be seen as giving meaning to your life or helping you reach your goals.
- Reconnect with your values. This is one of the most effective ways to feel more powerful, in control, loving, strong and connected. Find a way to carry a reminder of your top values (eg. patience, acceptance, love) with you into a stressful situation and see if it helps you cope. Research has shown it does (8).
- ‘Tend and Befriend’ Open up about your struggles. Everyone experiences stress. When you open up, support can appear in ways you least expect. Reach out to others experiencing distress. This not only helps them, but also decreases our stress response, activating hormones and areas of the brain associated with trust, empathy, hope and courage and decreasing activity in fear centres.
I highly recommend reading McGonigal’s book to learn more about the studies, stories and tips she outlines that convince us how stress can be healthy.
- L. Nicole Versaevel The University of Western Ontario January 2015. “Canadian Post-Secondary Students, Stress, and Academic Performance – A Socio-Ecological Approach.”
- Abiola Keller, Kristin Litzelman, Lauren E. Wisk, Torsheika Maddox, Erika Rose Cheng, Paul D. Creswell, and Whitney P. Witt University of Wisconsin – Madison O. “Does the Perception That Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association With Health and Mortality.” Health Psychology 31, no. 5; 677-84
- Becca R. Levy and Martin D. Slade Yale University Suzanne R. Kunkel Miami University Stanislav V. Kasl Yale University. “Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging.” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 21, no. 6 (1998): 517-26
- Crum, Alia J., and Ellen J. Langer. 2007. “Mind-set matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect.” Psychological Science 18, no. 2: 165-171
- Jamieson Jeremy P., Matthew K. Nock, and Wendy Berry Mendes. “Mind over Matter: Reappraising Arousal Improves Cardiovascular and Cognitive Responses to Stress.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 141, no.3 (2012): 417-22. See also: Jamieson, Jeremy P. Matthew K. Nock, and Wendy Berry Mendes. “Changing the Conceptualization of Stress in Social Anxiety Disorder Affective and physiological Consequences.” Clinical Psychological Science 1, no.4 (2013): 363-74
- Alia J. Cruma , Modupe Akinolab , Ashley Martinb and Sean Fathc a Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA; b Department of Management, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA; c Department of Management and Organizations, Duke University, Durham, NC. “The Role of Stress Mindset in Shaping Cognitive, Emotional, and Physiological Responses to Challenging and Threatening Stress.”
- Cohen, Georffrey L., and David K. Sherman. “The Psychology of Change: Self-Affirmation and Social Psychological Intervention.” Annual Review of Psychology 65 (2014): 333-71.
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