Feeling overly busy, tired and irritable? Eating too much or too little? These are all signs we may be suffering from the bugbear of modern life: stress. But what if there was a positive way to look at stress?
How many times this week have you caught yourself saying, “I’m stressed”? Chances are when you said it, you were trying to convey something about a state you didn’t like and didn’t think was good for you: maybe tense shoulders, maybe a racing mind, maybe difficulty sleeping or eating too much or too little.
But what if everything you knew about stress was only part of the story?
In a recently published Harvard University study, researchers set out to see if it was possible to adjust what we think about stress – and see if doing so had any impact on the body’s response to stress, as well as people’s behaviour.
They explored the idea that all of us hold a mindset about stress. A mindset is a lens we use to view our experiences, to organise and make sense of the world in the midst of complex information. Examples from previous research have shown that adopting particular mindsets influences ageing (a positive mindset can add seven and a half years to your life), food consumption (feeling full is affected by what you think you’ve eaten rather than the nutrient value) and exercise (if you think you’ve had the recommended amount of exercise, your health improves).
A “stress mindset” refers to the expectations we have about what stress is, for example, whether it is good or bad. The two stress mindsets researchers explored were: “stress is debilitating” (most of us would probably unconsciously hold this view) or “stress is enhancing”.
The example the researchers give is seeing an impending deadline as being highly stressful, but still looking at it with a “stress is enhancing” mindset. In other words, the belief that experiencing the stress will ultimately result in enhancing outcomes. Or, one may also appraise the impending deadline as highly stressful but may have a “stress is debilitating” mindset, expecting the stressor to debilitate health and vitality.
Most of us could recite some of the harmful effects of stress. It has been linked to physical health issues (heart disease, cancer, liver disease); work issues (absenteeism from the office, loss of productivity); and mental health issues (depression, aggression, relationship conflict). To most of us, stress is “negative”, or something to avoid or manage.
How mindsets change
Each group in the Harvard University study watched short film clips containing factual information oriented towards defining the nature of stress (the “stress is enhancing” view versus “stress is debilitating”). In the “stress is enhancing” condition, participants were shown examples of people who have triumphed over adversity.
Examples included the pilot who was forced to crash-land a commercial airliner on the Hudson River in New York showing great performance under pressure, and historical leaders such as Sir Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi making wise decisions in stressful situations. Other positive attributes mentioned as a result of stress were: mental toughness, new perspectives, a sense of mastery, strengthened priorities, greater appreciation for life and an increased sense of meaningfulness.
The “stress is debilitating” videos highlighted the harmful effects of stress, including material such as athletes underperforming when it mattered most and former US president George W. Bush mishandling the Hurricane Katrina crisis. It’s important to note that both perspectives on stress are supported by research.
Results showed the people who had been in the “stress is enhancing” group reported changes for the better in psychological symptoms and work performance over two weeks.
In a further study by the same authors, the stress mindset influenced how much cortisol (a stress hormone) was produced by each group. The “stress is enhancing” group showed a moderate amount in line with boosting productivity. This group’s participants were more open and willing to hear feedback, which is a measure of behavioural flexibility.
If you think about your own ability to absorb feedback when you are stressed, you’ll usually notice that you are less than keen to hear it. So changing one’s mindset to a more positive one, even if just for the short-term, changes physiology and behaviour – not bad for watching three short videos. The researchers concluded that the mindset you adopt when approaching stress is a critical factor in determining whether stress will have debilitating or enhancing effects for individuals.
In a similar vein, a Harvard University study from 2012 set out to determine whether teaching people to view their body’s stress response (pounding heart, shallow breathing, butterflies in the stomach) as helpful could alter their body’s subsequent response.
Researchers looked at three groups: a reappraisal group that was told that body arousal during stress wasn’t harmful and that the body’s response to stress aids performance; a group that was told to ignore their stress and focus on something else; and a control group that was not given any instructions. Each group was then subjected to the same stressful task – making a speech in front of critical examiners.
What they found was that when people were instructed to view stress as functional and adaptive, their cardiac performance improved (blood vessels stayed relaxed rather than constricted) and their ability to focus was improved. It’s worth seeing your body as your ally when you are under stress, remembering, “this is my body’s response to stress, it’s energised and gearing up to meet the challenge”. Our bodies are not harmed by stress and can handle it; like the wings of a plane experiencing turbulence, your body is designed to withstand great amounts of pressure.
Researchers have put a lot of effort into finding out what might buffer the effects of stress. Much work has been done on social connectedness, as social isolation is a known cause of death and disability. Research has focused on what elements of social support are important in promoting health, with many assuming it is the amount of social support received that is crucial. But now a study published in the American Journal of Public Health has shown that, in fact, helping others reduces stress.
“In effect, this finding suggests that, among individuals who do not help others, exposure to a stressful life event is associated with 30 per cent increased mortality risk,” say researchers. It turns out that others might have gotten it the wrong way round; rather than receiving support, giving support might be central.
Power of belief
In 2012, a piece of research was published in the journal Health Psychology that showed if you believed you had been under a lot of stress in the last 12 months and you believed that stress negatively affected your health, your risk of dying rose by 43 per cent. This study, carried out by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was the first to link the perception of stress to health outcomes. Previous research had looked at how specific stressors such as negative life events or chronic work stress affected health.
The perception that stress affects health is distinct from the amount of stress someone experiences. For example, an individual could report experiencing very little stress but still believe it to have a big impact on their health. In fact, an important part of health psychology is figuring out the extent to which our beliefs impact our recovery from illness. As an example, research on back injuries has shown that it is not only the amount of objective injury that determines pain and recovery, but the beliefs about how bad the pain is and how much we fear it.
In light of this research it seems useful, if not crucial, to have other ways of thinking about stress that can optimise our health. It is, after all, not the stress itself, but the way we view it that matters.
Stress is a given in life and the way to respond to it is succinctly summarised by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal: “Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. The best way to make decisions is to go after what creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.”
Stress makes us social
Another positive feature of stress goes against the received wisdom that stress makes us withdraw.
In her TED talk “Make stress your friend”, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses an underappreciated aspect
of the neurohormone oxytocin, which she talks about as being “as much a part of stress response as adrenaline.”
Oxytocin is pumped out from our pituitary gland when we are stressed and motivates us to seek support by telling someone how we feel instead of bottling up our feelings.
Through oxytocin, our stress response gives us the biological mechanism to create resilience by connecting with those
who care about us and who are close to us.