The ‘S’ Word: Why we need to change the way we think about stress

stressed looking model frog

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘stress’? For many people, the word has overwhelmingly negative connotations: poor health, premature ageing, even early death. Whilst educating people on the dangers of stress is undoubtedly important, the downside of a sustained public health campaign is that it has established a deep-set belief that stress is bad and something to be avoided at all costs. However, the reality is more complex, and in recent years there has been a drive to educate people on the more positive aspects of stress. This is important for many reasons, including:

  1. Stress is a part of life. It is what happens in our bodies and brains to help us meet the demands of daily life. It is a natural survival mechanism and it can actually stifle our human development if we are not exposed to it. For example, if children are completely shielded from stress, they can struggle to develop the skills or self-belief they need to manage challenges later in life, or become hyper-sensitive to relatively low levels of stress or adversity.
  2. Stress can be good for us. Contrary to the popular ‘stress is the enemy’ belief, some degree of stress can help us to reach our potential and work towards important goals. It can help us thrive in our modern, fast-paced world by giving us drive and focus, and by supporting learning, growth and resilience. It can also be associated with positive emotions and help to strengthen social connections.

So if we accept this more nuanced picture, with stress being something that brings both risks and benefits, how should we approach its management? Well, the first thing to note is that stress is highly subjective and there is no one-size-fits-all solution; what triggers a stress response in one person may not provoke the same in another. Another thing to note is that our response can change over time and be influenced by many variables, including context, environment, health, resources and moodstate. However, what we do know is that how we think and feel about stress mediates how it impacts us:

  • A study conducted in the US with around 30,000 adults found that those who perceived their stress as harmful had a 43% increased risk of premature death compared with those experiencing similar levels of stress who did not perceive it to be harmful (Keller et al., 2012). The thoughts and feelings we have that are linked to stress can affect not only our psychological health, but also the health of our immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and central nervous systems, in ways that are harmful or protective over time.
  • Research has demonstrated that we can shift our stress mindset to enhance mood, focus and cognitive flexibility (Crum et al., 2017). By tuning into how we think about stress and tapping into the upsides, we can begin to develop a more positive mindset. This enables us to think, feel and behave in more helpful ways, and allows us to capitalise on the benefits of stress whilst protecting ourselves against its associated risks. A good starting point is to consider the thoughts we have when we are feeling stressed and ask ourselves, is this SOS? Does this situation require an emergency response? If yes, how can we mobilise our resources to act and deal with it? If no, can we change how we think about it and re-frame it as a challenge? Going through this process enables us to calm the emotional and physiological response and engage the thinking brain to work out the best way to meet the challenge.

‘The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.’ – William James

Of course, some situations are immensely challenging, and it’s important not to belittle these; in highlighting these points we are by no means suggesting that all stress can, or should, be made into a positive experience. However, a great deal of everyday life stress arises from situations we have more control over than we realise.

At Positive we promote a proactive approach to stress. As well as championing a healthy stress mindset, we encourage people to build protective habits that can help them manage everyday challenges and setbacks. Such habits include:

  • Using positive imagery
  • Challenging catastrophic or unhelpful thoughts
  • Developing effective relaxation strategies
  • Practising mindfulness
  • Making use of breathing exercises
  • Engaging in regular exercise (even just going for a brisk walk every now and then)
  • Aiming for balanced nutrition (limiting sugary foods, caffeine, alcohol & other drugs)
  • Providing the opportunity to get 7-9 hours sleep per night
  • Scheduling recharge breaks throughout the day
  • Listening to music
  • Spending time with friends and family

While many of these strategies are very simple, they’re associated with real benefits when part of a regular routine. It is important to try to establish them as habits before we start to struggle; when we’re going through a challenging period, it’s often harder to implement things that aren’t ‘the norm’, but it’s during these times that the practices can make the most difference, reducing the risk of us turning towards unhelpful coping mechanisms.

Optimising wellbeing isn’t about trying to avoid stress altogether; it is about developing the awareness and skills to recognise what is happening and to manage our responses. If we can do this – and we all have the potential – then we can cultivate a healthy, positive relationship with stress that doesn’t compromise our psychological wellbeing.

Summary:

  • Stress isn’t all bad. It’s a natural, normal part of life that has benefits as well as risks.
  • Stress is highly subjective. We all have different triggers and our responses can be influenced by many variables.
  • How we think and feel about stress matters. Research has shown that mindset has a bigger impact on risk of premature death than actual stress levels.
  • We can shift the way we think to develop a more positive stress mindset.
  • We can also develop protective habits to help buffer the impact of challenges and set-backs.
  • Accepting that stress is normal is vital to making positive progress and building our tolerance.

References

  1. 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, 31(5), 677.
  2. Crum, A., Akinola, M., Martin, A., & Fath, S. (2017). The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Anxiety, Stress and Coping, 30, 379–395.

 

Enjoyed this? Check out Positive’s The Psychology of Stress

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