If you had to summarize how you feel about stress, which statement would you pick?
A. Stress is harmful and should be avoided, reduced and managed; or
B. Stress is helpful and should be embraced and utilized?
While it’s no secret that sustained levels of stress are not good for your health and can drive burnout, there is more to the stress story than “stress is bad.” Thanks to Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk about making stress your friend, I now believe in something called “stress resilience.” Stress resilience is the human and organizational capacity for stress-related growth, and it’s a skill set we can all develop.
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% increased risk of premature death (Keller et al., 2012). Interestingly, the study showed that people who reported high levels of stress but didn’t perceive their stress as harmful had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study – even lower than the people who reported low levels of stress.
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 something helpful 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 strategies will help you be better able to reframe stressful events.
Create bigger-than-self goals. According to Dr. McGonigal, a bigger-than-self goal is more about how you see yourself within your community – what do you want to contribute and how do you want to make an impact? Studies show that when people are connected to bigger-than-self goals, they are more hopeful, curious, grateful and inspired. Not surprisingly, they also show greater well-being and satisfaction with their lives.
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. As it turns out, your stress response is really pushing you to connect with other people. Helping behavior acts 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).
There is no question that chronic stress can be harmful to your health, but there’s more to stress than what you’ve been told.
If you want to learn more about how to develop the techniques and strategies that help you build stress resilience, we can help! For individuals, check out our personalized coaching programs and for organizations, check out our speaking topics and training programs. We are currently in the process of developing virtual and online programs, so please check back soon!
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.
McGonigal, K. (2015). The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good At It. New York: Avery.
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.