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Harnessing the Power of Stress

Our understanding of stress has come a long way over the last couple of decades; arguably much further than the daily practice of stress management for most people.

Harmful effects of stress are well documented in scientific literature. High blood pressure, headaches, stomach problems and a compromised immune system are a few examples of what stress can do to us.

Employers and policy makers are starting to pay attention. Stressed workers are more likely to be unhealthy, poorly motivated, less productive and less safe at work. The result is the downward pressure on productivity and bottom line, and the upward pressure on the cost of healthcare and social programs.

In the past, our thinking has been (and for some of us still is) to eliminate stress by eliminating its causes. In practice, this amounts to an exercise in futility, and not just because of how busy and unpredictable our lives have become.

Let’s show this point with a simple exercise. Take a sheet of paper and make two lists:

  • First, list things that cause you the most stress.
  • Second, list things that are most important to you in your life.

How much overlap is there? If we eliminate all things that give us stress, our lives would not have much meaning. In the words of Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University:

“We need to give up the fantasy that you can have everything you want without stress.”

Kelly McGonigal

So, if stress is here to stay, we need to learn how to befriend it and get to know it better. Since 1970s, researchers have differentiated between bad stress and good stress. Moderate amount of stress, like running a timed race or facing a deadline, can be beneficial for performance. But beyond a certain threshold the benefits plummet and the stress can break us. The key question then became: “What can we do to change the breaking point?”

A recent body of research suggests that what really matters is not the level of stress, but how we think about it. The idea itself isn’t new. After all, we’ve always heard that staying positive is key to being successful. But now there is strong evidence that our attitudes and beliefs shape the brain’s physiological response to stress.

A number of studies demonstrate that when people perceive they are being challenged rather than threatened, they still feel the pressure, but the brain stays sharper and the body releases a different mix of stress hormones. Those with a more positive outlook produce hormones that help with recovery from stress and, crucially, improve learning from the stressful experience.

It’s the difference between thinking “why do these things always happen to me” verses “Ok, this is happening. I don’t like it, but let’s see what I can do about it.”

Recognizing and embracing the benefits of stress not only results in measurable improvement in performance, but reduces physical wear and tear on the body. Analysis of data from the National Health Interview Survey in the US shows that those who reported high stress and believed it was harming their health had a much higher risk of premature death than those under high stress but with a more positive outlook. Very interestingly, those who reported high stress but stayed positive were also less likely to die early than those who reported little stress. This sounds great, but staying positive can be easier said than done. Where do you start?

It helps to think of stress as a natural and helpful function of our nervous system. Stress response allows us to go into overdrive mode to get things done, but like any mechanism it needs proper maintenance.

“Feeling burdened rather than uplifted by everyday duties is more a mindset than a measure of what is going on in your life.”

Kelly McGonigal

When thinking of high stress, our imagination may bring up a “crash and burn” scenario. That’s how many of us have been socialized to think about stress. Instead, stress is more like going to the gym. You know that you only get stronger and faster when you push yourself beyond what is easy, when your muscles begin to burn and you run out of breath. But you also know that you will only get the benefits of exercise if you allow your body to recover. In this way, stress is no different. Stress at work can increase performance but our bodies must be allowed to recover, just like we allow our muscles to recover after a hard workout.

The really hard part can be to change your mindset and stop viewing rest and recovery as a form of luxury. It should be treated the same as other “must do” tasks like paying the bills or buying groceries. If you’re like most people, you know how much discipline it takes not to check work emails on weekends or to actually do relaxing activities on vacations.

But perhaps the most important first step is to accept that stress is unavoidable. The only choice we have is to either let it control us, or make it work for our benefit.