Webster’s dictionary defines “stress” as “a state of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.”
In other words, when things aren’t simple and predictable, the body’s physiological and psychological systems sound the alarm. This alarm places both your body and brain on alert for whatever might come. We associate this state with uneasiness, fear and general discomfort. Your heart and mind races and you’re forced to think and act in unfamiliar ways to overcome challenges.
For decades, research has suggested that frequent exposure to stress is inherently bad, increasing one’s likelihood for morbidity and mortality.
As a society, we’re willing to go to great lengths to avoid this unpleasantness.
We turn to medication, meditation and long vacations to try to dampen our natural stress “alarm” to uncertainty and change.
Despite these large-scale attempts to “avoid stress,” it’s estimated that workplace stress costs companies between $200 and $300 billion per year. We’re running, but apparently we can’t hide from this life-consuming monster.
But it’s not all bad news: Recent data suggests that stress in and of itself may not be the monster we’ve made it out to be.
As humans, our beliefs and perceptions play a significant role in how we react both psychologically and physiologically to any stimulus, and this plays into the relationship between stress and health in our lives.
A recent study published in Health Psychology examined people’s reported stress levels in combination with their beliefs as to how those stress levels positively or negatively affected their health. Researchers found that those who believed that stress negatively effected their health had a significantly higher risk of negative health outcomes compared to those who experienced high levels of stress, but did not perceive these associated demands as negative to their health.
These findings suggest that, while our physiological response to change (stress) may be constant, our psychological processing of it is what ultimately determines the effect on our health.
Consider the most recent non-life-threatening event in your life that required you to break “equilibrium” and learn something new, solve a new problem or grow your capacity in some way to meet the challenge.
There are two distinct ways you could have mentally processed the novel demands outlined above:
- “This is not fair. I should not have to be doing this. Breaking my equilibrium is bad for my life. This is going to conquer me.”
- “I’m going engage my resources and overcome this hurdle. I take on challenges. It’s going to be hard, but I’m going to pick up new skills that make me stronger along the way. The end result is a stronger, better-equipped me. I’m going to conquer this.”
Data suggests that despite both ways of thinking eliciting a similar physiological response, the latter of the two would have the least negative impact on one’s health.
So if stress isn’t necessarily bad for us, could it actually be good for us in the right doses?
Research on aging populations reveals that the more novel demands, expectations and purpose-fueled action the brain is exposed to, the more it continues to adapt and grow as we get older. Additionally, it appears that individuals who associate stress with fulfilling a clear life purpose may have fewer strokes and experience lessened symptoms and a slower onset with brain pathologies such as Alzheimer’s disease.
When in the throes of a stressful time, it’s hard to see these redeeming qualities. Consider, however, what novel demands with uncertain outcomes can drive us to do in our lives. We learn, innovate, engage and continue to expand our capacity. Would we do this in the absence of stress?
Of course, it is important to note that stress takes on different forms. Acute, life-altering events, such as death, disease and other “disasters,” engage a significant stress response that undoubtedly creates strain on one’s health. Even in these situations, however, research suggests that those who actively seek out physical, mental, emotional and spiritual measures for resiliency may curb the negative side effects of the stress response.
But if you’re like many people, you also struggle to manage the chronic, day-to-day stress of modern life. For the phone calls, deadlines and daily fires that make up a majority of our operational stress, consider the following strategies to decrease the negative effects of stress on your life:
1. Reframe the game!
Everyone has a hobby, sport or other activity in their life where they actually seek and enjoy a challenge. Imagine bringing this mindset to areas of life that might not be as enjoyable, but still can bear fruit from overcoming obstacles.
2. Stop blaming.
Stress comes in many forms and from many different angles. It’s quick and easy to relinquish accountability for how we perceive and react to the different demands in our lives. This poor perception and defeated mindset can easily be blamed on our jobs, spouses, kids, current elected officials and more.
Remember, research suggests you can actually decide how stress is going to effect you. Prior to blaming others, make sure your head is in the right place.
3. Practice gratitude.
Helen Keller once said, “I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”
Many of the things that are sources of stress in our lives—jobs, relationships, etc.—are often what provide us with the greatest levels of fulfillment and satisfaction.
- When things are crazy at work, we forget how lucky we are to have a job.
- We’re angry with our spouse, then talk to a friend who recently lost theirs.
- We lament the imperfections in our material possessions, yet forget there are people who have nothing.
Being aware and practicing gratitude helps create valuable context for the stress in our lives, ultimately decreasing its negative effects.
Follow these steps and avoid being a victim and instead become a victor over the stress in your life.