by Cereinyn Ord
Imagine a week where your relationship falls apart, you lose your job, and you have to move house.
Stressful? Absolutely. All negatives? Not necessarily.
There are different types of stress we all deal with.
Stress bought on by previous difficult life circumstances can become a long-term serious condition that drains our energy and focus. This sort of stress tends to manifest as ongoing anxiety that doesn’t make sense compared to what is going on in our lives, and often means we need to dive deep and explore our past and emotions, preferably with the support and help of a professional.
But then there is the stress we experience in reaction to the challenges life throws us in the here and now. The latest research on stress suggests that this day-to-day ‘lifestyle stress’ has the potential to bring out behaviours that make our lives better, not worse.
How can lifestyle stress possibly be good for us?
In her 2013 Ted talk health psychologist Kate McGonigal popularised the seemingly radical notion that although we have made stress a monster, it’s only bad for you if you believe it to be so.
If you choose to see day-to-day stressors as having a positive side, stress can instead be a good thing, especially because it is one of the main mechanisms that teaches us to reach out to others and enjoy all the benefits human bonding can bring.
Is her proposition true? It seems it could be, based on a range of studies that illuminate the positive potential that stress can provide.
What studies have found about the positive benefits of stress
The main study on possible positive side effects of daily stress comes from researchers Achor, Crum, and Salovey at Yale University. They found that instead of reducing stress, adjusting people’s mindsets to see stress as a positive can improve health as well as work performance.
The research was conducted on employees of a financial institution that was under the extreme stress of a dramatic downsizing. The participants were subjected to rigorous personality testing to discover their predisposition to stress and life. It was found that those with a more positive view of life were able to deal more healthily with stress.
In the second part of the study, the employees were shown ten minutes worth of video clips that either enforced stress as a positive, or pushed it as a negative. The videos covered the areas of health, performance and learning/growth.
Those who watched videos promoting stress as something life enhancing developed a better mindset, improved psychological symptoms, and better work performance.
A further part of the study involved testing the hypothesis that a ‘pro-stress’ view of the world would result in an optimal level of cortisol release ( though sometimes demonised, in optimal doses cortisol is beneficial and has been shown to provide blood pressure management, reduced inflammation, and a stronger immune system). A group of undergraduate students were engaged in a stress-inducing situation and it was indeed found that approaching a challenging situation with a positive view of stress resulted in optimal cortisol levels.
Reaching out to others while under stress – the golden ticket?
Another interesting discovery of the Yale study was that holding a mindset that stress could enhance over ruin your life resulted in participants being more likely to choose behaviours that helped them meet the demands of the stressful situation they were put in.
This included reaching out to others for feedback and support, which is known to encourage personal growth and create stronger relationships.
In other words, Ted speaker McGonigal was right – stress enhances the possibility for bonding with others on a deeper and more vulnerable level. We all need some help now and then, and reaching out for support is a definite positive.
Are we ‘taught’ how to respond to stress?
An unrelated study looking at the specific gene responsible for warmth and empathy when parenting found that our cultural ideas around stress definitely play a part in our reaction to it.
American participants bought up to show warmth were more likely to reach out to others when stressed than South Korean participants, who were equally as warm as people but raised differently and thus found more likely to withdraw. This suggests that our cultural perceptions of how our stress impacts others affects whether we are able to utilise the bonding element of stress or we instead attempt to protect others from it.
This might go some way to explaining why, in disaster scenarios in America, you don’t have every person for themselves but rather spontaneously formed communities bonding to clean up, such as in New York City following Hurricane Sandy.
Are you not reaching out for support because you were raised not to? What benefits might you gain if you changed this pattern? And do you worry that your stress makes you undesirable to others? How could your world change if this was not true but just something that you learned?
The positive physical benefits of lifestyle stress
The focus with stress is usually on the negative affects to our physical health like fatigue, insomnia, under and overeating, and muscle tension, amongst others.
On a positive note, stress also comes with its own built in ‘physical protection’ kit. It releases an incredible cocktail of chemicals that, while making your heart beat uncomfortably, also boost the body’s immune defences, heighten your senses, and increase your ability to strategise and think clearly.
“A burst of stress quickly mobilises this ‘crew’ [of body chemicals] to damaged areas where they are likely to be needed,” explains Firdaus Dhabhar, director of research at the Stanford University Center on Stress and Health. This is why, in, say, a car accident situation, all non-essential thoughts leave your mind and you find yourself not only able to think clearly and act but you might also suddenly have a burst of energy.
One of the chemicals that stress can release is oxytocin. Famous as the ‘cuddle’ or ‘love’ hormone, oxytocin contributes to our abilities to relax, trust, and attain psychological wellbeing, and is known to lower anxiety. So while entering stressful situations is not the way to seek an oxytocin burst, it might again explain why stress gives us that wonderful side effect of helping us bond with others.
Another positive side effect might be found if you give in to a good cry. Instead of feeling childish for an emotional outburst after a stressful experience, see it as a great way to release toxins. A study at the St Paul-Ramsey Medical Centre in Minnesota discovered that stress-related tears contain certain hormones that the body creates only to manage stress, and crying helps us release them so they don’t build up in our bodies.
But why do I still feel terrible when stressful things happen?
If you have already been trying to change your thoughts around the challenges in your life, don’t feel despondent if you don’t instantly feel a change. Positive results from stress rarely manifest immediately. Even though in trials on rats it was found that the stem cells in their brains did react to stress by developing new nerve cells that improved their mental performance, it still took two weeks for the cells to mature.
Rats aside, try to take a long-term view. In psychology, stressful events can also be called ‘stress-related growth’. You can compare such growth to a film’s storyline, where you have a character with a crisis that must be met. Without the crises, there is no film and no character development. Stress-related growth means the stress changes you for the better. These positive changes can include mental strength, heightened awareness, new perspectives, a sense of mastery, strengthened priorities, deeper relationships, greater appreciation for life, and an increased sense of meaningfulness.
All this indicates that in many stressful situations we experience day-to-day there is an opportunity for growth and that a small perception shift might mean your difficult situation can enhance instead of drain your life.
This is not to say you should simply ‘positivise’ your past experiences and think that will make things better. As stated at the beginning, some types of stress are consequential and not rational. If you are experiencing consistent low moods and anxiety, remember that McGonigal’s conclusion was that reaching out for support is the main positive of stress. How can you reach out for help?
Back to that example of a crazy week we started with. What if the relationship falling apart is a way to learn more about your own choices and behaviours, the job ending means you can now decide what you really want from a career? And moving house is a way to reach out to old and new friends for help, or even to suddenly find yourself receptive to an enlightening conversation with the ‘man with a van’ you hire that proves itself to be an incremental shift in your transformation to someone you’re happy to be?
Do you have a unique way of turning stress on it’s head? Why not share below?
Photos by: rick, J.E. Theriot, Helga Weber, Celestine Chua
Cereinyn Ord has a background in film and visual media. She now also explores and writes about positive health psychology, with a specific focus on the power of beliefs and fiction to transform our experience of the every day and on how we look at and manage personal and global conflict.