The Upside of Stress?

20160723_IRD001_1When travelling through the airport in the summer I happened to pick up the latest copy of The Economist and noticed an interesting article on stress and its effects. The article was interesting not only because it was particularly timely as travelling through European airports in the summer is inevitably stressful, but that the article was inviting me to reframe stress and welcome it !

Researchers in Stanford University  are now showing that if people are told that a certain amount of stress is healthy they can actually utilise it to their advantage . That how we feel about our stress or our relationship to it, is important in terms of its impact. Apparently, the impact on our bodies is less if we see stress as a challenge rather than a threat and we will manage the situation better if we change how we think about it. Essentially the study is suggesting we harness stress by looking at it as positive.

The article also argues that that stress is what we feel when something we care about is at stake and attempts to reassure us that it must be important if we are stressing.  Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University and the author of “The Upside of Stress”, helps people rethink stress by telling them that stress  is what we feel when something we care about is at stake. She invites  us to make two lists; one of things that stress us and another of things that matter to us.  She argues that these lists would not be dissimilar and that we need to realise that if we  eliminated all stress in our lives, our lives would not have much meaning!

This reframing may help but its also important to reduce stress and to recognise that it can be harmful over a long period and its important we don’t try to jolly ourselves along by thinking we can just see it as a challenge and utilise it to our advantage.

When I teach about stress to groups of employees, I always say that we need a certain amount of stress to keep us motivated and engaged and creative  and that of course, when this gets too much we feel overloaded and start to feel the ill effects of stress. Also thats its important to  recognise stress in ourselves and  know how we feel it in our bodies. We will then be better able to  mind ourselves when stressed and do what we can to reduce it, whether it be regular breaks, exercise, a mindfulness practice, letting-off steam etc.

Much is being asked of people in the workplace and cultures can be very fast paced and at times frantic. In my experience its important that we look after ourselves and learn to say No, or perhaps that you can  do whats been asked of you, but not immediately and then set a deadline for when it can be done. By doing this we are protecting ourselves and being realistic about when the work can be done. In the courses I run, I like to invite groups to look at the particular stresses in their workplaces and to identify ways they can address these. We also look at the internal stresses such as perfectionism, high expectations and being your own worst critic and how this might be managed to support us in being well, happy and effective at work and in life in general.

If you’ like to read the article in full check it out here  Economist article . It does provide an interesting slant in arguing that our relationship to stress is important and that generally we are only stressed about things that are important to us.  I think there may be some truth in this but its important to remember that we need to keep an eye to our own stress levels and mind ourselves as much as we can and be assertive and realistic about the demands placed on us.

Monica Haughey

Psychotherapist/ Trainer