Today, the Oxford English Dictionary defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”. The causes vary enormously: one person may be stressed by exams but happily swim with great white sharks. Another may have to take sedatives before flying, but enjoy speaking to a crowd. This makes stress hard to measure. Proxies, such as the Negative Experience Index produced by Gallup, a pollster, suggest the world is growing more pessimistic, which may indicate increasing stress levels. Other surveys confirm what is perhaps obvious: stress is universal.
or even its type, but how it is thought about
Late in his career Selye came to distinguish between good stress caused by positive experiences, such as falling in love, and distress, the bad sort. Other scientists explained it metaphorically: just as many materials can withstand stress until a certain breaking point, it was thought that humans could cope with stress if it did not become too severe. The idea took hold that moderate stress might be a good thing. Some described it as a “human function curve” meaning that a moderate amount of stress, such as a deadline or race, was beneficial. But above a certain stress threshold, humans, like metal bars, would break down.
Recognizing that stress can be beneficial is an important concept. People who have a more positive view of stress are more likely to behave in a constructive way: a study by Alia Crum of Stanford University’s Mind and Body Lab found that students who believed stress enhances performance were more likely to ask for feedback after an uncomfortable public-speaking exercise. Plus, seeing stressors as challenges rather than threats, affects how one responds, thus causing less physical wear and tear.
Humans can respond to stress in several ways. The best-known is the “fight or flight” response. This is the response to sudden danger, which increases the heart rate; constricts the veins to limit bleeding; sends more blood to the muscles; and the brain focuses on survival.
Sometimes, the wrong response is triggered. People taking exams, giving a speech or pitching a business plan, can react as if they are in a life threatening situation, with negative consequences to both their performance and their long-term health.
In an earlier study Ms. Crum and Shawn Achor, the author of “The Happiness Advantage”, visited UBS, an investment bank, at the height of the financial crisis in 2008. They divided 400 bankers into three groups. The first watched a video that reinforced notions of stress as toxic; the second watched one highlighting that stress could enhance performance; and the third watched no video clip at all. A week later the second group reported greater focus, higher engagement and fewer health problems than before. The other two groups reported no changes.
Ms. Crum believes that attitudes and beliefs shape the physical response to stress. In 2013 she subjected student volunteers to fake job interviews. Beforehand, they were shown one of two videos. The first showed how stress can improve performance and social connections; the second emphasized its dangers. In the fake interviews, the participants were subjected to severe criticism. When Ms. Crum took saliva samples at the end of the study, she found that those who watched the upbeat video had released more DHEA, a hormone associated with brain growth.
the physical response to stress
We all have different views of stress. If you Google images of stress you’ll see a guy with his head on fire. We’ve internalized the negative ideas of stress. Instead, compare stress to going to the gym. You get stronger if you push yourself beyond what feels easy, but afterwards you need to recover. The analogy suggests that stress at work may be performance-enhancing, but should be followed by periods of relaxation. That may mean not checking e-mails on weekends, taking more holidays or going for a stroll in the middle of the day.
The Inquisitive Mind
Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University and the author of “The Upside of Stress”, helps people rethink stress by explaining it is what we feel when something we care about is at stake. She asks them to make a list of things that stress them; and a second list of things that matter to them. “People realized that if they eliminated all stress, their lives would have little meaning,” she says. “We need to give up the fantasy that you can have everything you want, without stress.”
Surveys and research have shown that those who experienced high stress and believed it harmful, noticed health deterioration. Those who reported high stress but did not believe it was harmful, were less likely to experience bad health.
learning how to harness it is wiser
than fruitless attempts to eliminate it
Certain patterns of thinking can turn a short-term dip in vitality or emotional well-being into longer periods of anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. A brief moment of sadness, anger or anxiety can end up tipping you into a ‘bad mood’ that colors a whole day, weeks or longer. Recent scientific discoveries have shown how these normal emotional fluxes can lead to long-term unhappiness, acute anxiety and even depression.
But, more importantly, these discoveries have also revealed the path to becoming a happier and more ‘centered’ person, by showing that:
--when you start to feel a little sad, anxious or irritable, it’s not the mood that does the damage, but how you react to it.
--the effort of trying to free yourself from a bad mood or bout of unhappiness…or working out why you’re unhappy and what you can do about it…often makes things worse. It’s like being trapped in quicksand. The more you struggle to be free, the deeper you sink.
This raises some interesting issues which could affect long term health.
Can we learn from what life is showing us? Can we accept that things happen for a reason? And, perhaps there is something for me to learn from this situation or experience?
Instead of having "resistance" towards an event that didn't go the way we wanted, can we move on with acceptance and focus on what can be learned from the experience?
Williams, Mark and Penman, Danny. Mindfulness. Rodale Publishing; 2013