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Make stress great again

by Janis Martman

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How much stress have you experienced over the past year? Do you believe that stress is harmful to your health? A team of researchers asked 30,000 adults in the U.S. these questions and then tracked them over eight years to understand how perceptions of stress affect health and mortality.  

If you are like 44 percent of Americans, your stress levels have increased over the past five years and you are likely to believe this stress is harmful to your health. However, researchers found that people who reported high levels of stress and believe stress is damaging to their health had a 43 percent increased risk of premature death compared to those who were stressed but did not perceive stress to be damaging. This finding is fascinating because it alludes to the powerful nature of our minds and the interesting fact that our thoughts and beliefs affect reality. In this study, the appraisal of stress and its impact on health appear to work together to increase the risk of premature death.  

When we encounter a stressful situation our initial response is to determine the degree of threat the situation poses. In turn, this appraisal affects the level of distress we associate with the stressor. While high stress appraisal is important when avoiding, say, a lion hurtling toward you, this extreme (and contextually beneficial) stress response is less useful in day-to-day life. Much of the stress we experience today is a gradual accumulation of life events, like taking on a new project at work, having an argument with your partner or facing financial challenges. Although not a matter of life and death, this daily stress is very real. The stress hormone cortisol is released into the bloodstream and our entire physiology begins to function through the filter of a general stress response. But what if we could change the way we perceive this stress, soften our initial appraisal and relate to it in a more accepting way?

Contrary to popular belief, the physiological effects that occur along with stress, such as shortness of breath, are not inherently bad, but the negative label we place on them can be. Next time you experience a physiological response to stress, try thinking about this feeling as a powerful, energizing tool that is preparing you to meet life’s challenges. Like the animal kingdom, allow yourself to experience it, and then let it pass. Scientists suggest that reappraising stress as a helpful mechanism may actually improve performance.

Researchers tested this hypothesis by bringing students preparing for the GRE into the lab for a practice test. Half of the participants were told that signs of physiological arousal (e.g., increased heart rate) associated with sitting a stressful exam predicted better performance, while the other half received no instruction. Participants assigned to reappraise their stress response as positive showed reductions in biological markers of stress and actually performed better on the exam compared to the control group who did not reframe their experience. Several months later, participants returned to the lab with scores from their actual GRE. As expected, participants who reappraised their stress response as positive scored higher on the actual GRE and reported that their physiological arousal on the day of the exam aided their performance. These findings have strong real-world implications as they suggest that reappraising a stress response as beneficial can result in positive outcomes such as improved academic performance.

Reframing the stress response as a beneficial experience may be easier in theory than reality, but practicing mindfulness might help. Research suggests that meditation may improve one’s ability to reappraise stressful situations as helpful. Scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill proposed a framework explaining the impact of meditation on positive reappraisal. They suggest that meditation enhances meta-cognition or our awareness and understanding of our thought patterns. As our awareness of these processes increase, we become better at stepping back from thoughts, emotions, and sensations, which enables alternative appraisals of stressful life events. The authors conclude that mindful decentering, or stepping back from our internal experience, facilitates the attribution of new meaning to previously stressful events. These findings have significant implications for clinical practice and those who experience moderate to high levels of stress in day-to-day life.  

Stress is inevitable but altering the way we think about it may have significant implications for mental and physical health, regardless of your stress level. And stress will never be totally avoidable … so why not make it your friend?

Janis Martman

Janis is passionate about using scientifically supported techniques to improve wellbeing. She holds an MSc in Positive Psychology with expertise in the study and application of mindfulness-based techniques. Janis is based in London and is part of the science team at Headspace.