"The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another." -- William James
I first began to re-think the way I think about stress when I saw Dr. Kelly McGonigal's wonderful TED talk on the topic. As a stress management and burnout prevention coach, and as someone who has experienced a great deal of stress in my life, I am well aware of how chronic stress can wreak havoc on your health and happiness. I experienced frequent panic attacks both during law school and when I was burning out. Panic attacks and chronic stress in general can zap your energy in lots of ways, so choosing how to respond to stress gives you control when you need it the most and can make a world of difference to your health and well-being.
While it's no secret that sustained levels of stress are not good for your health, there is more to the stress story than "stress is bad." As it turns out, how you perceive stress is just as important as the amount of stress you're experiencing. Specifically, individuals who both perceived that stress affects their health and who also reported a large amount of stress had a 43 percent increased risk of premature death (Keller et al., 2012).
When people think that they have the resources sufficient to deal with a stressor, they experience a challenge response. Challenge responses are typically associated with positive psychological and physiological outcomes. In fact, participants in one study who were instructed to rethink stress as functional were able to recall more available resources and had improved cardiovascular functioning. Conversely, when people perceive their resources to be lacking under stress, they experience a threat response. Threat responses have been shown to impair decision-making in the short-term and are associated with brain aging, cognitive decline and cardiovascular disease in the long-term (Jamieson, Nock, & Mendes, 2012).
The goal is not to decrease the level of stress or to erase it completely, both of which feel impossible in the moment; rather, the goal is to reshape how you interpret stress (e.g., first thinking that this stressor is here to help me in some way).
Adopting these two strategies will help you be better able to reframe stressful events.
Develop a "stress helps" mindset. Your stress mindset is your belief about whether stress has enhancing or debilitating consequences. The type of mindset you adopt about stress -- either a "stress helps" mindset or a "stress hurts" mindset -- highly influences psychological, physiological and behavioral outcomes. While chronic stress is not good for your health, some stress can impact your health in positive ways and aid physical recovery and immunity. Research shows that those who adopted a "stress helps" mindset were more likely to seek out feedback and therefore grow as a result of experiencing stress and had more adaptive cortisol profiles under acute stress (Crum, Salovey, & Achor, 2013).
Help others. When I'm anxious about giving a presentation, the last thing I want to do is reach out to someone, especially a stranger, and tell him or her that I'm feeling butterflies. My preference is to hole up by myself and try and "deal" with the emotions. As it turns out, your stress response is actually pushing you to tell someone that you're feeling stressed. Helping behavior actually serves as a stress buffer and help given to others is a better predictor of health and well-being than indicators of social engagement or received social support. In fact, experiencing stressful events significantly predicts increased mortality among those who had not helped other people in the past year, but among those who had provided help to others, there was no association between stress and mortality (Poulin et al., 2013).
How do you interpret the stressors in your life? Are they there to help you learn something, grow in a new direction, wake you up to life, or do they exist to take a toll on your health and well-being? The choice is up to you.
Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP is a burnout prevention and resilience expert who helps companies and busy professionals prevent burnout and build stress resilience. For lots of strategies and tips to prevent burnout and find more engagement at home and at work, click here for a free copy of Paula's e-book, Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention. Her website is www.pauladavislaack.com.
Crum, A.J., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104(4), 716-733.
Jamieson, J.P., Nock M.K., & Mendes, W.B. (2012). Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology 141(3), 417-422.
Keller, A., et al. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology 31(5), 677-684.
Poulin, M.J., Brown, S.J., Dillard A.J., & Smith, D.M. (2013). Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. American Journal of Public Health, 103(9), 1649-1655.
Image reprinted with permission of photspin.com.