Even if you’re the most zen person in the world, it would be difficult to avoid stress entirely. While stress is a part of most people’s lives, and there are many ways we can deal with it, pioneering research into the field has discovered that the way we choose to view stress can truly make a difference to how we respond to it.
There are myriad ways to deal with stress but research spearheaded by Lazarus and Folkman showed the importance of cognitive appraisals in our response to stress. They proposed that how we appraise the demands of a situation in conjunction with our perceptions of our resources to cope can influence how we deal with stress. Further research built on this has found the importance of how we view stress in tackling our stress response.
One study investigating over 400 people in a large financial organisation found that those who believed that ‘stress-is-debilitating’ reported lower levels of health and quality of life to those adopting a ‘stress-is-enhancing’ mindset. In this research, it was not the case that these individuals who viewed stress in this manner had suffered less stress, but they instead adopted a different approach to their stress.
Consider it as taking either a glass half empty or glass half full approach. When viewed negatively, stress can be seen as something to be avoided, suppressed, and not dealt with. This can have the unintended consequence of exacerbating and maintaining any source of stress. Conversely, those who view stress as being helpful are likely to look for ways to problem solve issues, confide in others and seek information, further help or advice. Remember stress is not designed to harm us!
Stress isn’t the only area where mindsets have been found to determine a positive outcome. Research has found it to hold influence when it comes to exercise, ageing and intelligence. For example, when it comes to ageing, those who hold a negative mindset about growing older exhibit a range of unhealthy choices and outcomes and have a diminished will to live. So in this instance, it really is a case of mind over matter.
For most of us, stress is largely inevitable so it’s important to learn to harness stress and restructure the way you view it and its presence in your life. Changing your mindset towards stress opens up the possibility of approaching stress in a different way. Take what you have learned about stress so far and challenge your beliefs about it—remember that your response to stressful situations is not predetermined, but is influenced by a number of different factors.
Stress is not always easy to deal with but reappraising it can help. When you find yourself in a stressful situation, take a moment and consider what has caused you stress, could it be a NUTS situation? How do you feel, what do you notice physically and also find yourself thinking? Could this be something that really matters here? Also consider how you could use your stress response as a resource to achieving your goals as opposed to being an impediment⁹. In these moments, reflect on what you have read about stress and try reassessing it when it strikes.
How do we define stress?