April is stress awareness month and annually health care professionals aim to promote awareness of the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic. They say stress can kill you and can lead to a plethora of stress-related illnesses. But what is the whole story around stress and can it actually be good for you?
While long-term chronic stress is of course incredibly harmful, recent studies have shown that short-term stress may have positive and advantageous benefits. The way in which we perceive stress can have significant effects on the impact stress has on your body and mind.
We looked closer at studies of short-term stress and how our bodies respond to stress. Firstly, let’s consider that stress isn’t embedded in our bodies as a response to kill us, but to help us survive.
How does stress work?
Stress is a constellation of events that begins with a stressor; which is a stimulus. The stressor precipitates a reaction in the brain, this is called stress perception. The way our brain registers the stressor results in the activation of a fight or flight response in the body. This is the physiological response which includes an increase in heart rate and the release of hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.
We looked to Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and author of The Upside of Stress, to find out how changing perceptions toward stress is part of becoming healthier. In a talk at TED2013, she reveals that part of the harmful effects of stress arises because we believe stress is bad. She advocates not avoiding anxiety at all costs, but to embrace it as part of normal life.
McGonigal cites a study by the National Institute of Health, to explain how stress perception matters. While the study shows that high levels of stress may increase people’s chance of premature death, McGonigal uncovers that this is true, but only for those who perceive that stress is bad for them.
The findings show that the participants in the study who were least likely to have a premature death were those who didn’t conceive stress a deterrent to good health. Therefore by acknowledging that stress is a natural part of life, and dealing with it in a healthy way – such as by talking to friends & family about what is causing your stress, can make the world of difference with regards to how stress impacts your health.
Happiness and Stress Coexists
Happiness and stress are like yin and yang: stress is part of a happy life, and happy life isn’t totally void of stress.
Baumeister, a social psychologist that has pioneering work in the study of the self and free will, researched that human beings often find that the most stressful life encounters are the ones with the most meaning. Understanding happiness and stress in this way is more conducive to a healthy response and an improved attitude.
In order to be calm and have the ability to perform during stressful situations, it would be more favourable to think positively. Instead of trying to rid stress and anxiety altogether, channel it into energy to boost your performance.
Often, negative self-talk can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So next time you encounter a stressful situation, be aware and conscious of your thoughts and the way you speak to yourself.
Try to encourage more positive and confident thoughts and use the energy in a more positive way as this will enable you to not only cope with the situation better but will improve the way in which your body physically responds to stress.
The topic of stress is one that is extremely broad. Limiting the perception of stress as bad or harmful removes the opportunity to understand the upside of stress and using stress as a means to boost performance.
The power of your mind over your body is incredible, and the saying ‘mind over matter’ rings especially true with respect to stress.