Since the 1970s a deluge of research studies, books, documentaries, media and internet articles have conditioned us to believe that stress is bad. Dubbed as the ‘health epidemic of the 21st century’ by the World Health Organisation, stress is reported to adversely affect the lives of millions of people across the world. It’s been linked with the six leading causes of death. Many countries cite stress as their number one health problem. On average, 33% of people in a survey of 121 countries when asked: “Did you feel a great deal of stress yesterday?’ answered ‘Yes.’
On the back of this stress is bad mantra, a billion dollar stress management industry has sprung up to teach us how to minimise, or avoid, the stress it in our lives. However, the science tells us that this widely accepted belief that stress is bad, is based on two fundamentally flawed assumptions:
- The effects of stress are only negative. It doesn’t reflect the fact that in many cases, our stress response truly helps us.
- The goal should be to avoid, manage and counteract the effects of stress.
The latest science suggests we don’t need to minimise or avoid stress, we just have to change our stress mindset.
Changing how we respond to stress by changing our Stress Mind-set
A mindset is a core belief. It transcends preferences, learned facts, or intellectual opinions. It is usually based on a theory about how life works. For example: the world is getting less safe; everything happens for a reason; people cannot change; stress is toxic.
Mindsets act like perceptual filters influencing the meaning we give to our experiences.
In 2009 Psychologists Alia Crum from Yale University and Shaun Achor from Harvard University conducted a study to test a new hypothesis. They wanted to determine how much the consequences of stress were determined by a person’s mind-set towards stress. They designed a study to determine if training a group of stressed employees about the positive benefits of stress could reduce the debilitating effects of stress and increase the beneficial effects. The answer was YES.
The study showed that the group who received the ‘Stress is Enhancing’ training was able to significantly reduce stress related health symptoms such as headaches, back aches, insomnia and hypertension and significantly increase their productivity and work performance.
The research suggests that, regardless of the type or severity of stress you are experiencing, if you can begin to believe in, and focus on, the enhancing possibilities of stress (as opposed to the debilitating ones, as most people do by default), the enhancing outcomes will be more likely to occur.
As part of the Stress is Enhancing training, Crum and Achor developed a simple three step process to help people shift from a 'Stress is Debilitating' mindset to a 'Stress is Enhancing' mindset.
The three steps in the process are:
- Acknowledge your stress
- Welcome your stress
- Utilise your stress.
At first sight the three steps may seem counter intuitive because they fly in the face of the traditional message that stress is something to be avoided.
So what’s the science behind the idea stress is enhancing?
What proof is there that stress can both enhance our performance and our health and enable psychological growth?
Most of the stress literature/media reporting focuses only on the fight or flight stress response, but there are in fact at least two more types of stress response, each with a different biological profile that motivates various brain/body strategies depending on the situation we’re faced with.
The infamous fight or flight response evolved to help us survive threats to our physical well-being. For hundreds of thousands of years it's been helping us to either fight off, or run from, threats. This positive survival ability is still as valuable to us today, even if the threats we face are a lot different to those our ancestors faced.
The fight or flight generated stress can improve our health and vitality by enabling a quicker recovery from injury, enhancing the effectiveness of our immune system and building resilience. The fact that stress enhances our immune system makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because when we are attacked by a wild animal that’s the time when we want our immune system working at its optimal level.
Alongside the fight or flight response we have:
- a challenge response. When a situation is perceived as a challenge, the brain/body triggers the challenge response. This response helps us to perform under pressure. It increases self-confidence, motivates action, and helps us learn from experience. When we trigger the challenge response, moderate levels of stress provide us with the energy, motivation and physical and mental resources to take on challenges and work towards our goals. The challenge response increases our brain’s processing speed, focuses our attention and improves our memory! It primes us to perform at our best and is what elite athletes preparing for a competition, surgeons in operating theatres, and performers going on stage all rely on for success.
- a tend and-befriend response. This response motivates us to connect with others, increases courage, motivates caregiving, and strengthens our social relationships.
The stress response system is adaptive, constantly trying to figure out how to best handle whatever situations we encounter or expect to encounter. For example a barrister about to give summary statements in court would have a challenge response. When he/she arrives home, if their kids are fighting over their attention, a tend and befriend response will soothe them all. And if the smoke alarm goes off in the middle of the night, a fight or flight response will get him/her and the rest of the family out of the house safely.
Studies have found that with practice, we can learn to choose the stress response we want to experience in any situation. Rather than being derailed by a fight or flight response we can consciously choose to interpret the stress we're experiencing as being the result of a challenge or tend and-befriend response. Doing this, alters our emotions, physiology and behaviours.
So the next time you feel the symptoms of stress, ask yourself which type of stress response you need most in that moment. Do you need to fight, escape, engage, connect, find meaning, or grow? Even if it feels like your stress response is pushing you in one direction, focusing on how you want to respond can shift your thinking and biology to support you.
Change your relationship with stress for the better
Just imagine taking the stress you experience in your life and, by adopting a 'Stress is Enhancing' mindset, turning it into something that is enhancing for your performance, health and psychological growth. And imagine how, being able to reframe your stress as Challenge or Tend and Befriend stress will change change your relationship to stress for the better.
Helping people to regain control over their stress and anxiety is my passion. If you'd like to explore how I can help you, or change your stress mindset let's have a chat. You can contact me now on 021 056 8389 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the Book Now button.
Wishing you a happy, calm and productive week in your workplace.
REMEMBER - "When you change your mind you change your life."
Tony helps individuals to harness the power of their mind to achieve success and well-being in life, work and business. Tony's particular area of expertise lies in helping people to 'change their minds' so they gain freedom from worry, anxiety and stress, overcome limiting beliefs and unhelpful habits. Tony’s solution focused approach to coaching uses a range of techniques drawn from the fields of solution focused coaching, neuroscience, positive psychology and clinical hypnosis.