Many of us may think two main things about stress: first, that stress is bad for your health; second, that you have too much stress in your life. Well, this in fact is wrong, according to fascinating research quoted in a new book called "The Upside of Stress", by Kelly McGonigal, and covered in the Times online here (subscription needed).
Here, I look at how stress might be good for you, and how to change the way you experience it.
Research on 30,000 US adults found that, as you might expect, high levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43%. However, this applied only to people who believed that stress was harming their health. People who didn't view stress as harmful in fact had the lowest risk of death.
A subsequent study explored further the effect of beliefs about stress. In this study people watched one of two videos before taking a stressful job interview. Video one said that that stress was positive, whereas video two said that stress was debilitating. The first group released higher amounts of the stress hormone DHEA. This hormone helps your brain grow stronger from stressful experiences, and is linked with lower levels of anxiety, depression and heart disease.
The challenge response
We often associate stress with the "fight or flight" instinct we learnt as cavemen. Here, stress from life or death situations like being faced with a mountain lion helped trigger a reaction to fight or run for your life. However, when the stressful situation we face is less threatening, the body and brain can move into a "challenge response". An example of this response would be an artist or athlete so immersed in what they are doing that they reach state of "flow". Here, the challenge response gives you energy and helps you perform better.
Kelly also suggests that feeling stress is part of living a meaningful life. She quotes research from the Gallup World Poll, in which 125,000 people from 121 countries were asked "Did you feel a good deal of stress yesterday?" The researchers found that countries with higher levels of stress also had more feelings of love, joy and laughter. The happiest people were those who were stressed, but not depressed. The biggest sources of stress were shown to be the very things that give life meaning: work, parenting and relationships.
So, what can we do to access what Kelly calls the "upside of stress"?
- Acknowledge the stress when you experience it and notice how it effects you
- Connect to the positive motivation behind the stress - what is at stake that matters to you?
- Use the energy created by stress - rather than trying to manage the stress, what can you do right now that reflects you goals and purpose