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Turn Stress On It’s Head



Since I last wrote my blog on managing stress I have really had to walk my talk with an increased workload, a break-in by a sleepy intruder who took a nap on the carpet (!), and continued sleep deprivation as my son cuts all his teeth at the same time. I had recently come across a completely new take on stress and it has definitely made stress a very different beast. Or should I say friend?!

In a nutshell the message is that stress is only really bad for us if we believe it is bad. OK, I will give you a moment to digest that…. . For so long we have been told that “stress is bad” and this really is a different take isn’t it?! Obviously, a person who has no stress at all is likely to be healthier and happier than a person who does have a stressful lifestyle. However, a longitudinal study cited in a book by Kelly McGonigal, entitled The Upside of Stress, found that while stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent that increased risk only applied to people who believed that stress was harming their health. This study did control for factors such as how much stress the participants were under to start with. The conclusion was that it was not stress alone that was killing people but the combination of the stress and the belief that stress is harmful.

This is in in many ways related to my previous post where I discussed the fact we have the ability to choose how to respond to events and thus impact our responses. The above research finding was explained as follows- when we believe that stress is bad for us the body tends to arm itself physiologically to cope with the perceived stress – cortisol levels increase, heart race increases, blood pressure increases. Enough of these biological reactions over time can then result in long-term damage and even death. Furthermore, if we believe that the stress is having a negative impact we may psychologically respond with hopelessness and anxiety due to the belief that we are doing ourselves harm. When we become stressed about our stress we have an increased stress-response physiologically and psychologically. The effect you expect is the effect you get.

Consider this…you are working in the media industry where a deadline-driven environment is the norm. You then get told that stress is bad for you. However, you have to work under these conditions as it will be no good having a go-slow and then being late for the deadline and you also aren’t able to put the work in any earlier as it has to be based on the latest news/information.  You are therefore stuck between a rock and hard place and this can lead to a sense of powerlessness. People who cannot stop their stressful lifestyles yet know that that stress is bad for them will simply feel more stressed and this will do more damage.

I believe I may well have lost a client due to the above dilemma. She had been living a very stressful lifestyle which was impacting on her health and this caused her anxiety. I agreed with her perception and we worked on how to manage her stress to prevent it ‘being so bad for her’. I was aware that she felt unable to shift things in her life at that time – leading to a sense of being stuck. Initially I suggested she look at her perceptions and realise that she had chosen the current lifestyle and was choosing to keep it as it was for various reasons i.e. it was an empowered decision versus her being helpless and powerless.  However, she continued to report how tired and difficult it was and instead of holding this and affirming her decision to stay with the stress for the time being,  I tried to encourage her to change her lifestyle if at all possible in whatever ways were possible (in other words reinforcing that her lifestyle was bad for her). She stopped coming to see me and I don’t believe it was because she was too stressed to find the time. I believe that seeing me just exacerbated how stressed she was about her stress.

Now imagine I had told her that stress is in fact good in many ways. Imagine how differently she may have felt and responsded? According to Kelly McGonical and a variety of research It is in fact true….Stress is good for you! Stress enables you to be focussed, energised, determined and driven. Stress enables people to get things done, to be smarter and more successful. How you think about stress affects everything from your cardiovascular health to how meaningful you find your life. So it is far smarter to embrace and change your perceptions of stress rather than to resist it and add to your stress load.

“When you experience stress, there are changes happening in your brain and your body that are trying to help you connect with others, or rise to the challenge, or learn and grow. And just like with a placebo effect, when you recognize that your body and brain are capable of responding in a way that is helpful or healing, you actually enable it to happen more effectively.” Kelly McGonigal

The research of Alia Crum studied people who were either told stress is detrimental or that it is beneficial. They then experienced a stressful situation and a saliva sample was tested for stress-related hormones. When people believed stress was bad their saliva indicated only heightened cortisol levels. Those who had been told that stress is beneficial had both heightened cortisol levels AND heightened DHEA levels. Cortisol prepares the body for fight and flight while DHEA helps the brain to grow during stressful situations and even counters the stressful effects of cortisol. A difference in mindset literally results in different biological responses. How amazing is that?! McGonical even refers to a stress response that results in the release of oxytocin (the bonding hormone) and helps people to connect and nurture.

So the next step is to ask yourself what your relationship to stress is like. Is stress the demon or does it help you to get through what you need to get through and even be successful at it?

I can only speak for myself but this new way of seeing stress has been extremely eye-opening and powerful. I have been trained on how ‘bad’ stress is and have also experienced adrenal fatigue due to ‘too much stress’ (which in actuality was due to my belief that I was doing damage to myself with all the stress I was under). Thus parenting has been very challenging, especially the enforced sleep deprivation. It has made me anxious that I am so tired and so stressed but I felt powerless as THIS IS MY LIFE RIGHT NOW. Funnily enough I had started to change my perception about the stress i.e. it’s only for this period of my life and “I accept the stress I am under right now and realise I chose this when I chose to have children”. Already that decreased resistance to the stress had helped. However, now I realise a major lesson: “I am really good at stress!” (I must be as I am stressed all the time yet I have managed to hold it together, work, prepare meals, hold a household together and largely meet the needs of my children). Thank goodness for my stress providing the energy and biological mechanisms needed for that! Suddenly I don’t feel as run down, depleted and tired – despite getting as little sleep as before and having had the craziest month.

How magic is that?!! Now it’s your turn to try this magic out…..

For more information read Kelly McGonical’s book “The Upside of Stress” or take a look at this interview with her which was posted on Gwyneth Paltrow’s blog http://goop.com/why-stress-is-actually-good-for-us-and-how-to-get-good-at-it/?

Also, should you be interested the research I referenced was cited in Kelly McGonigal’s book and is as follows:

Alia Crum’s research on the buffering effects of stress mindset on Cognitive Functioning during Stress. (In progress at the time of writing the book)

Bourdarene, M., J.J. Legros, and Timsit-Berthier. “[Study of the Stress Response: Role of Anxiety, Cortisol and DHEAs]: L’Encephale, 28, no. 2 (2001): 139 – 146.

Keller, Abiola, Kristen, Litzelman, Lauren E. Wisk, et al. (2011). “Does the Perception That Stress affects Health Matter?: The Association with Health and Mortality.” Health Psychology 31, no. 5: 677 -684


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  1. Great article Kerry. Just a comment from my side though. Agreed that people perceive stress negatively, while stress whether it be mental/emotional or mechanical stress can be hugely positive and helps us immensely in building strength, stamina and providing mentally vitality. However I find that many people who are unable to deal with stress are those who fail to support themselves adequately during periods of “high stress”. Let me give an analogy let’s say you have entered Iron Man. The training demands can be grueling and stressful, but most athletes know that they have to support themselves by nourishing their bodies with good food and taking quality rest between training periods so they are able to continue physically extending themselves.When we are faced with periods of intense stress from a mental/emotional aspect it is useful to view it the same way athletes do and ensure that we nourish ourselves so that our bodies are able to deal with the demands we place on it. How we think of stress is NB but we need to also acknowledge when we are extending ourselves we need to support that that process to continue growth.

    1. Thanks Jeanette! That’s a really valuable point. Thinking about it made me realise that if we perceive stress positively we can feel more empowered to then take the necessary steps to help ourselves during times of stress and feel even more positive coming from a self-supported place. However, generally, viewing stress as all bad brings a sense of powerlessness and futility and many people feel helpless to actually do anything about this ‘bad’ situation that they are experiencing. That of course then will result in the stress having a more detrimental effect not only because of the mind set but because the body has not been supported. Thanks for reading my post and taking the time to reply!

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