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Imagine you are on stage, about to give an important speech. Your heart races. Your hands are cold and clammy.
Why do our bodies react this way? “Ninety-nine percent of the stressors in modern society are social stressors. We’re worrying about bad reviews, performing poorly on some test or job task,” explains Jeremy Jamieson, a psychologist at the University of Rochester who studies the effect of stress on decision-making and emotions. But “our social stress response systems are built on the architecture that was originally designed to deal with physical stressors.”
In other words, when we step on stage to give that speech, our body reacts like it just spotted a bear.
But are we doomed to react this way, treating social stresses like physical danger? Not according to Jamieson’s research. Instead, we can learn to “reappraise” our stress and anxiety as excitement and positive emotion.
If we believe we can handle the challenge, we experience an “approach-motivated” stress state.
Think of two skiers at the top of an icy slope, both hearts racing; the experienced skier feels excited and confident, while the beginner feels paralyzed with fear. It can work the same with social stressors: “We intrinsically assess whether we have sufficient resources to meet the demands or not,” said Jamieson.
If we believe we can handle the challenge, we experience an “approach-motivated” stress state. Our body prepares to approach or address the stressor, allowing us to feel excited, amped up, or even angry. But if we believe we don’t have enough resources, or foresee threat, our bodies anticipate defeat and seek to minimize physical harm by constricting blood vessels and centering blood in its core. “The expression cold feet?” said Jamieson. “Your hands and feet actually get colder because less blood is flowing there. The body is basically anticipating something harming us, and things are more likely to harm our extremities than our core.”
Jamieson’s studies show that people can alter these physical responses by changing how they think. In one experiment, a group of students preparing for the GRE (a graduate school entrance exam) were told that signs of physiological arousal—such as increased heart rate—predict better performance on the test. When taking a practice test, these participants exhibited more cardiac efficiency and less constriction of their blood vessels (in line with the “approach-oriented” stress response) than students without this instruction. What’s more, the students who were encouraged to embrace stress outperformed their counterparts on the quantitative section of the GRE both during an in-lab practice test and during the actual exam months later.
Believing in the positive benefits of stress was enough to boost performance on the exam.
In a series of experiments, Alison Wood Brooks, a researcher at Harvard Business School, found that people who were instructed to say the words “I am excited” before singing karaoke or giving a speech performed better than those encouraged to express anxiety, calmness, or no emotion. And participants who read a slide with the words “Try to get excited” performed better on a stressful math test than those who read “Try to remain calm” on a control slide. If we feel anxious about giving a wedding toast or walking into a performance review, we can reappraise that negative stress as positive excitement. [Editor’s Note: To reappraise your own stress, listen to how we did it.]
Our approach to stress can have long-term effects. In 1981, Illinois Bell Telephone laid off almost half of its 26,000 employees. Dr. Salvatore Maddi, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, tracked more than 400 company higher-ups for six years leading up to the layoffs and for six years after. Following the layoffs, two-thirds of Maddi’s subjects struggled with their work performance, leadership, and health. Some experienced heart attacks, strokes, obesity, depression, substance abuse, and poor performance reviews. The other third — despite experiencing the same upheavals as their colleagues—maintained their health, happiness, and positive career performance.
Maddi studied the differences between those who faltered and those who thrived in the face of stress, distilling the differences into what he called the “Three Cs.” The people who thrived in the face of stress strove to be involved in what was happening around them (commitment) and wanted to influence outcomes, rather than wallow in passive powerlessness (control). But they also exhibited an attitude of challenge, which meant viewing stress changes as opportunities for learning and growth.
This lines up with the findings of a 2011 study linking data from the National Health Interview Survey and the National Death Index. Researchers found that self-reported, high stress levels were associated with worse health, including mental health. But those who saw stress as positive were physically and mentally healthier than those with more negative views of stress. In fact, high stress was associated with premature death — but only among people who also believed that stress can affect health.
So when you feel yourself overreacting to stress, remember that your body is literally preparing for physical danger. Like the GRE takers in Jamieson’s study, try reminding yourself of some of the benefits of stress. And instead of thinking, “I’m so anxious about hitting this deadline. I’m terrible at my job. I hate this!” try to reappraise your stress as excitement: “This deadline has me energized and motivated. This work is important and I enjoy it.”
“No one thinks that stress can possibly be good,” said Jamieson. But with the right frame of mind, “the stress response becomes a resource … People who are completely calm in stressful contexts don’t perform as well as people who experience stress.”
“It’s better to be relaxed than stressed—but it’s better to be challenged than to be relaxed.”
Artwork by KYLE BECK