Stress: The Upside and How to Reduce its Negative Impact

by Michelle Velan

Following the past year, we are hearing a lot about stress. Let’s look at some of the statistics.

– 76% of employed Americans currently feel burnout (2021)

– 74% of adults in the UK felt so stressed in the past year that they were overwhelmed or unable to cope (2019)

Most of us are aware of some of the potential negative effects. It can cause insomnia, anxiety, poorer immune function, weight gain and increased blood pressure. At times, it can feel so all encompassing that we feel like happiness or calm are out of reach and we find ourselves idealising a stress-free existence.

However, we shouldn’t. Some form of stress is unavoidable and par for the course of pursuing a meaningful and successful life. Thankfully, studies show that it’s not stress itself that causes health issues down the line, it’s our perception of stress and how we manage it.

The research is clear, we need to learn to better manage our stress so we can minimise our disease risk down the line. The good news is that according to the World Health Organisation, 90% of our health is socially determined. Meaning what we eat, how we move, our self-belief, the quality of our relationships and very importantly, how we manage and perceive stress. With such a large portion of our health being socially determined, there are things we can do to support ourselves wherever we find ourselves on the health spectrum.

When asked what we can do to avoid any of the big diseases, Elizabeth Blackburn who received a Nobel Prize in medicine said, “Exercise, do really interesting activities, don’t have long-term chronic stress.”

So instead of avoiding anything with the potential for stress, we can learn to appreciate it and use it for our own benefit. Because if you choose to use it in an empowering way, stress might make you a smarter, healthier and a stronger person.

But how?

Here are some takeaways on stress:

1. Your perception of stress determines its impact. In the book, “The Upside of Stress (2015)”, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University who is widely known for her work combining insights from psychology, neuroscience, medicine, and biology to provide strategies that support overall health and well-being, explains that it is our mindset that determines the impact that stress will have on us. In the book, the author provides evidence to suggest that embracing stress can actually have a positive impact on our mental and physical health.

“Stress happens when something you care about is at stake. It’s not a sign to run away – it’s a sign to step forward.”

Her research found that the best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to reframe how we view it.

When we view our stress response as helpful, you cultivate a sense of courage. McGonigal writes: In 1998, thirty thousand adults in the United States were asked how much stress they had experienced in the past year. They were also asked: Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?

Eight years later, the researchers looked at public records to find out who among the thirty thousand participants had died. The bad news is that high levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. However, interestingly, the increased risk applied only to people who believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In contrast, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.

Elizabeth Blackburn who won a Nobel prize in medicine had the same findings: It wasn’t stress itself that negatively impacted people down the line, it was their perception of stress.

2. There is a beneficial mindset for stress. McGonigal studied the effects of mindset. She did a mass scale test and found that the majority of participants agreed with statements that held a negative perception of stress. However, there were people who held the view that stress is enhancing and about these people McGonigal wrote: “…are more likely to view stressful situations as a challenge, not an overwhelming problem. They have greater confidence in their ability to cope with those challenges, and they are better able to find meaning in difficult circumstances.” A great way to reduce the potential negative effects of stress down the line is to adopt the beneficial mindset by agreeing with the statements below. Mindset 2. – Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity. – Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality. – Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth. – The effects of stress are positive and should be utilized.

3. Studies show some level of stress is good for us. In 2005, a study of 12,5000 participants was conducted in 121 countries, aged 15 and above. The participants were asked: “Did you feel a great deal of stress yesterday?” The researchers computed a national stress index with the results which was the percentage of a country’s population who answered yes. Each nation’s stress index was then compared to other variables like the nation’s life expectancy and GDP. The most surprising finding was that the researchers identified a positive correlation between each nation’s stress index and its overall well-being. McGonigal refers to this as ‘The Stress Paradox’ and she explains: “To the researchers’ surprise, the higher a nation’s stress index, the higher the nation’s well-being. The higher the percentage of people who said they had felt a great deal of stress the day before, the higher that nation’s life expectancy and GDP. A higher stress index also predicted higher national scores on measures of happiness and satisfaction with life. When it came to overall well-being, the happiest people in the poll weren’t the ones without stress. Instead, they were the people who were highly stressed but not depressed. These individuals were the most likely to view their lives as close to ideal.”

4. Take Good Care of Yourself. We’ve seen that it’s our perception of stress that puts us at risk down the line. It’s important to note that you can positively affect your perception by taking good care of your physical and mental health. A 2018 report found that our emotional state in a given moment may influence what we see, according to new findings. The research shows that humans are active perceivers, say psychological scientist Erika Siegel of the University of California, San Francisco and her coauthors. “We do not passively detect information in the world and then react to it — we construct perceptions of the world as the architects of our own experience. Our affective feelings are a critical determinant of the experience we create,” the researchers explain. “That is, we do not come to know the world through only our external senses — we see the world differently when we feel pleasant or unpleasant.” When we prioritise taking good care of ourselves by eating well (less sugar, caffeine, and processed foods, more water, veggies and whole foods), getting enough sleep, meditating or practicing mindfulness, breath-work, exercise and going for walks, or connecting with loves ones, we will be much less likely to feel chronic stress. In turn, we will be more likely to interpret things positively and find meaning in even minor tasks.

5. Process your Feelings. Whether it’s talking to a coach or therapist, journaling or going for daily walks, taking the time to understand and process your feelings in a healthy way, has great benefits on your health and stress levels. One 2007 brain imaging study by psychologists revealed that putting feelings into words produces therapeutic effects on the brain and verbalising our feelings makes our sadness, anger and pain less intense. According to the research of Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of social cognitive neuroscience, seeing an angry face and simply calling it an angry face changes our brain response.

A second study combined modern neuroscience with ancient Buddhist teachings to provide the first neural evidence for why “mindfulness” — the ability to live in the present moment, without distraction — seems to produce a variety of health benefits. Despite the healing benefits, many people are not likely to realise why putting their feelings into words is helpful. “If you ask people who are really sad why they are writing in a journal, they are not likely to say it’s because they think this is a way to make themselves feel better,” Lieberman said. “People don’t do this to intentionally overcome their negative feelings; it just seems to have that effect. Popular psychology says when you’re feeling down, just pick yourself up, but the world doesn’t work that way. If you know you’re trying to pick yourself up, it usually doesn’t work — self-deception is difficult. Because labeling your feelings doesn’t require you to want to feel better, it doesn’t have this problem.”

For anyone that has a regular practice, the benefits of journaling are very evident; however, they have also been scientifically proven. Because it’s free and can be done whenever, it’s an effective tool to add to any routine even for those that regularly talk with a coach, therapist or trusted friend. Research shows the following: – Journaling decreases the symptoms of asthma, arthritis, and other health conditions – It improves cognitive functioning – It can strengthen immune system response – It can counteract many of the negative effects of stress

6. Understand that A Stressful Life is a Meaningful Life. McGonigal writes that “Rather than being a sign that something is wrong with your life, feeling stressed can be a barometer for how engaged you are in activities and relationships that are personally meaningful.” Many people think that they would be happier if they had less stress in their lives. However, research suggests the opposite is true: People are generally happier when they are busy and engaged with life, even when they have more responsibility than they would otherwise choose. Moreover, even when the stress that we experience does not seem meaningful, it can cause within us, a desire to find meaning. As McGonigal explains: “Human beings have an innate instinct and capacity to make sense of their suffering. This instinct is even part of the biological stress response, often experienced as rumination, spiritual inquiry, and soul-searching. Stressful circumstances awaken this process in us.” The takeaway is not to try to eliminate or reduce the challenges of everyday life, but instead to change the way that you perceive those challenges.

We can do this by cultivating a mindset of meaning and gratitude. Ways to Cultivate a Mindset of Meaning and Gratitude Know your values and act with integrity: “Personal integrity is one of the most important guardians of mental health. Put simply, integrity is the absence of contradiction between what we know, what we profess, and what we do.” Nathaniel Branden Identifying your values and acting in ways that are aligned is another great way to improve your mental health and mindset towards stress. If you work long hours for a job that you don’t care about, you will be more likely to feel the negative effects of stress and be at risk of an eventual burnout. On the other hand, if you work long hours for a cause you care deeply about, you will be much more likely to feel engaged, grateful and have purpose. That being said, even if your current job isn’t your dream job, you can still be grateful and add meaning to it. For example, maybe your job isn’t your dream job, but you can recognise that it’s a stepping stone to something greater and you value learning and you can appreciate that you’re learning a lot.

7. Cultivate Gratitude. One of the best ways to move from feeling stressed or anxious is to take a minute to think about the things you’re grateful for. The more you do it, the easier it will become to naturally feel more optimistic and less stressed by unexpected events. There are always things to be grateful for. For instance, even if you don’t like your job, you may find it helpful to remember that not only does it provide an income when there are many people out there who don’t have any, but it’s an opportunity to expand your network and learn things like discipline, resilience, humility and the importance of focused work. Reflect on your job’s contribution and purpose as well as your own personal one No matter what work you do, it’s important to remember that you can have a positive impact whether it be through your creative ideas, lending a helpful hand to a colleague in need, or inspiring people with your positive attitude. Your work will feel more meaningful when it makes a positive contribution to your own life and to the lives of others.

If you’re struggling to find meaning at work, try asking yourself, in what positive ways is the work I’m doing affecting people? Your job exists for a reason. List out the top 3-5 most important parts of your role and write down why it’s important to perform them well. When you take the time to think about it, you will see that there are many reasons why it’s important to do your job well. At the very least, you will increase your self-respect and your prospects for advancement, it will provide you with an opportunity to grow your network and to learn discipline, humility and critical thinking. Have a vision Know where you want to go and work towards it. When you know where you want to go, it’s easier to move through moments of doubt and stress as you know that whatever you’re going through is part of the grander vision you have for yourself.


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