Is Stress Bad for You?
Entire industries have been built on the premise that stress is bad for your health, stress should be avoided, and if you can’t avoid it then you need to “manage” your stress levels. If you’re firmly in this camp then prepare to have your mind blown, just like I did when I studied the neuroscience of stress and put the findings to the test when I became the scientist of my own experience.
What is Stress?
A common refrain in today’s workplace is that “I am so stressed out”. But what is stress?
Put very simply by Hans Selye, an endocrinologist known for his studies on the effects of stress on the human body, “Stress is the (nonspecific) response of the body to any demand” (Selye, 1936).
A more modern definition of stress was put forward by Kumar and associates…
“It is the body’s reaction to a change that requires a physical, mental, or emotional adjustment or response. It can come from any situation or thought that makes one feel frustrated, angry, nervous, or anxious. Conceptually, stress can be any threat, either real or perceived, to the well-being of an organism.” (Kumar, et al, 2013)
When we perceive a threat in our environment, this trigger or stressor can set off the fight or flight response in our body. It doesn’t matter if the threat is a charging bull elephant or your boss demanding that you get your IT system back online in five minutes flat. Stress is a biological response. Your sympathetic nervous system primes your body for action by releasing adrenaline (and other hormones) and glucose to accelerate your heartbeat and increase blood flow to skeletal muscle and cortisol to provide a surge of energy (Fink, 2006).
For decades we have been told by medical experts that “symptoms” including a pounding heart, sweat beading on our forehead, and a dry mouth is anxiety, and that anxiety is bad and detrimental to our health. And left unchecked, it can be. This article is not about chronic stress and anxiety, but rather those acute moments when we need to rise to a challenge.
When we are unconscious of the purpose of the stress response, we can allow stress to overwhelm us…
• We can freeze – become paralysed or shut down.
• We can fight – get angry and lash out.
• We can flee – run away and hide.
Stress can Kill You, But Only if You Believe it Will
A study conducted by the University of Wisconsin tracked 30,000 adults in the US over a period of 8 years. Participants were asked two key questions:
1. “How much stress have you experienced in last year?
2. Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?”
Public death records were used to find out who died. According to the study, people who experienced a lot of stress had a 43% increased risk of dying, but this was only true for people who also believed stress is harmful for your health (Keller, Litzelman, Wisk, et al. 2012). People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die and actually had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study. Over 20,000 people died annually in the US during the study, not from stress but from the belief that stress is bad for you.
In a study conducted by Harvard University in 2012, participants were taught to view their stress response as helpful prior to performing tests in the experiment. According to health psychologist and author, Kelly McGonigal, “Students who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance, they were less stressed out, less anxious, more confident, and their physical stress response changed” (McGonigal, 2013).
In a usual stress response blood vessels constrict – in a person experiencing chronic stress, this can lead to cardiovascular disease. When students in the Harvard study viewed their stress as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed – a much healthier cardiovascular profile. “Over a lifetime of stress, this could be difference between having a heart attack at 50 and living to 90” (McGonigal, 2013).
According to Kelly McGonigal…
“When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress”
Stress is Enhancing Mindset
In 2018, Stanford University launched SPARQtools, which according to their website, is “a suite of digital toolkits that translate cutting-edge research into instructions and materials that practitioners and educators can use to sparq psychological, behavioral, and societal change”.
On their site you will find their ‘Rethinking Stress Toolkit’, which I highly recommend…
Implementing this toolkit has revolutionised my approach to stress in my business and life. I used to get stressed about feeling stressed – thinking that there was something wrong with me, something that needed to be fixed.
According to the site, “Fighting stress reinforces the fight or flight response”. We are in effect compounding stress by resisting it and viewing it in a negative light.
Rather than considering stress debilitating, the toolkit recommends adopting a ‘Stress-is-Enhancing’ mindset and outlines a 3-step process, which requires us to be aware of our stress responses and act consciously to harness it:
1. Acknowledge stress
2. Welcome stress (sounds counter-intuitive I know)
3. Utilise stress
When you are unconsciously stressed, you process stress in your amygdala. You are in reactive mode. Cortisol is released, triggering the fight or flight response. Great for escaping that bull elephant. No so great in a work environment.
As you verbalise or write down the stress you are feeling, the processing of stress shifts to the pre-frontal cortex, your ‘executive centre’. This puts you in the driver’s seat and allows you to choose how you will respond to the stress. You can harness the energy produced by the stress response to achieve your goals, rather than running away from them.
Remember the last time you were scrambling to meet a deadline – the adrenaline pumping, your heart racing. 100% in the moment, laser-focused, everything else fading into the background, working twice as fast as you normally do, easily solving problems as they cropped up, and the mammoth amount of work you got done in such a short period of time. That is the power of harnessing stress.
To develop a ‘Stress-is-Enhancing’ mindset, you need to create habits so you can harness stress in the heat of the moment. One strategy suggested is creating an anchor – a reminder to run through the 3-step process. The strategy I implemented is the “3 Step Sticky Notes”. I have a Post-it stuck to my laptop riser with the 3-step process written on it. This Post-it is the first thing I see every morning when I turn on my laptop, and whenever I feel stressed, I look at it and follow the steps to channel my stress into the challenge I am facing.
I love this approach, as it is non-judgemental. We are not judging stress as good or bad necessarily. We are not beating ourselves up for feeling stressed. We are being matter of fact in recognising the biological imperative of the stress response. It is not about seeking more stress. It is not about seeking less stress. It is about accepting stress as “my body helping me rise to this challenge” (McGonigal, 2013).
Become the Scientist of Your Own Experience
My challenge to you should you choose to accept it…
1. Resolve to stop beating yourself up about feeling stressed, stop fighting your stress response, and adopt a ‘Stress-is-Enhancing’ mindset.
2. Complete and implement Stanford’s ‘Rethinking Stress’ toolkit…
3. Create habits so you can harness stress in the heat of the moment.
4. Create an anchor – a reminder to run through the 3-step ‘Stress-is-Enhancing’ mindset process whenever you feel stressed.
I would love to hear how stress has helped you achieve your goals in the comments below.
Di Krome is a Champion for Good Mental Health in the Workplace and founder of Wildfire Business Consulting. Di is on a mission to inspire a generation of conscious, compassionate leaders to create psychologically safe workplaces, so their people feel safe, supported, and empowered.