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Don't stress about....stress!

It’s almost impossible to go through the day without hearing the word stressed or stressful from your family, friend or colleague. It’s equally difficult to read an article or watch a news bulletin which doesn’t make reference to what’s often regarded as a modern day epidemic. We’re bombarded with the notion that stress is unhealthy for us, but researchers are finally starting to understand exactly why this is the case. The answer? Don’t stress about stress.

Stress as the enemy

Surprisingly, the term stress was only coined 50 years ago by the physician – and pioneer of stress research – Hans Selye. He noticed that his patients were under strain, which led to the common definition of stress: a response which occurs when we perceive a situation as threatening but our resources to manage it are insufficient. Since then, academic research and media coverage on stress has sky-rocketed, but the term has gained a predominantly negative reputation. Attention-grabbing news articles include: ‘Stress might be just as unhealthy as junk food to the digestive system’, ‘Stress at work is just as bad as second hand smoke’ and ‘Stress may raise our bad cholesterol levels’. It’s safe to say that the media has done a pretty good job at painting stress as the bad guy.

But this is perhaps justified because the effects of stress are indeed worrying. From an emotional perspective, stress can make us depressed, anxious, irritable, and angry, which can have repercussions for relationships with our friends, family and partner. Cognitively speaking, stress can affect our memory, cause confusion, and result in a spiral of negative thoughts. Physiologically, stress can cause teeth grinding, digestive upset, hyperventilating, fatigue, and dizziness. Lastly, from a behavioural point of view, stress can result in a sense of loneliness, social withdrawal and poor work relations. On rare occasions, these four factors can combine to increase our risk of premature mortality, by manifesting as a range of serious health conditions. So, it makes sense that we see stress as the enemy.

Stress as something beneficial

Fortunately, this is only half the story. A new wave of research has revealed that stress can only have adverse effects on your physical health if you also believe that stress is unhealthy. Researchers Fischer and team noticed that a lot of stress-related symptoms were medically unexplained, and set out to understand the impact of stress-related beliefs. The results were fascinating. They found that if people were convinced that stress was bad for them, they experienced greater somatic symptoms under stressful situations. In another study, researchers discovered that people who were told to reconsider their stress arousal in a positive light showed improved cardiovascular functioning. In other words, when they told themselves that stress is not harmful, their blood vessels literally became less constricted. The lesson? Mind over matter.

Re-educating yourself about stress

Owing to its disease-like status, it’s hard to truly believe that stress can be beneficial because the reality is so unpleasant. But all is not lost. You can learn to deconstruct your assumptions about stress by reading books such as Kelly McGonigal’s ‘The Upside of Stress: Why stress is good for you and how to get good at it’, or watch her brilliant TED talk, ‘How to make stress your friend’. Reflecting on your mindset is equally important. According to Ben-Avi & Toker, if you believe that your abilities are stable, you’ll find it harder to shift your unhealthy perception of stress. In reality, however, abilities can develop over time. So, when you’re faced with time-pressures, job insecurity or difficult co-workers, and you feel the adrenaline in your chest, the sweaty palms, the brain fog, pause, even if just for a split-second to tell yourself that these responses are allowing you to rise to the challenge. As McGonigal says: “When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create a biology of courage.”