When stress isn’t distressing

Workplace stress could actually be good for you – it’s just a matter of taking the right approach
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/07/2015

Just mentioning the word “stress” can be enough to summon the feeling — especially at the workplace. It’s something we dread, something that keeps us up at night, and certainly not something we consider helpful. 


“For years, I’ve been telling people ‘Stress makes you sick.’ It increases the risk of everything from the common cold to cardiovascular disease. 


“Basically, I’ve turned stress into the enemy — but I’ve changed my mind about stress,” said Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University in California and author of The Upside of Stress, in her TED talk. 


Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she said — in some cases, it can actually be beneficial, if a person takes the right approach. 

In fact, changing the way people think about stress could actually lessen its negative impacts on their health, said McGonigal, who’s not the only expert to have arrived at that conclusion. 


“The main impact of stress is based not on the amount of stress or on the genes of the person, but on the mindset of the individual toward stress,” said Shawn Achor, a positive psychology expert and founder and CEO of GoodThink in Cambridge, Mass.

In 2009, Achor and two others researched 380 managers to test the impact of mindset on stress. Their findings? 


“If someone views stress as a threat, it becomes debilitating. When someone is taught to view stress as a challenge, it becomes enhancing,” he said. 


“When you perceive stress as a challenge, your immune system strengthens, growth hormones are released to repair your body, cognitive functioning speeds up and social bonds deepen. The groups that we trained… to see stress as positive had a 23 per cent drop in the negative effect of stress. Stress is inevitable — its effects are not.”


Stress responses

Of course, there is a difference between acute stress and chronic stress, said Jeremy Jamieson, assistant professor of psychology at Rochester University in New York. If a person is working in a truly toxic environment and suffering from chronic stress, changing her mindset about stress really won’t have the same impact as it would on acute stress. 


“It doesn’t really matter what you do, (chronic stress is) generally pretty negative,” he said. 


But a lot of the short-term stressors, the acute stress — especially when it comes to the work environment — involve things such as deadlines, performance evaluations and time pressures. They’re stressful but once the project’s done, it’s over, said Jamieson. 


“So that’s the kind of thing that is acute stress — it’s kind of in-the-moment-type stress. And with that, there’s lots of different kinds of responses that we can make to the situation,” he said. 


“Generally speaking, there’s two general types of acute stress responses… they differ a lot in terms of what is going on in the body. So we call them ‘challenge’ and ‘threat.’”


When people get into an acute stress situation, they appraise whether they have the ability to cope with it — whether they have the training, time or resources needed to deal with this acute stressor, said Jamieson. 


“If we appraise that we can, (our body responds by) helping us deal with it. So it dilates the vasculature, blood flows out to the periphery, to our major muscle groups and our brain; more blood in our brain means more oxygen, which means better cognitive performance. That’s why you see performance increases under that kind of stress, because it’s actually increasing cardiac efficiency,” he said. 


“All these things are designed to get us to approach the stressor. It’s all about approach motivation — basically, taking care of it and actively coping. And a lot of the emotional states associated with those kinds of responses are things like excitement, challenge.” 


The other side of the coin is threat, said Jamieson. When people face a stressful situation they appraise and feel they don’t have the ability to manage, they think, “OK, I don’t have the ability to do this — I don’t have enough time, I don’t have enough training, I don’t have whatever it is,’” said Jamieson. “What you’re telling your body essentially is that ‘I can’t cope with this,’” he said. 


“All the stress architecture that we have in our system —  all of the biological stress (responses) that we have — it’s all originally designed to deal with physical stressors. So, our bodies are optimized to deal with stuff from our evolutionary past, 20,000 years ago. It’s not optimized for social systems. But social stress has the same kinds of responses that physical stress does.”


During a negative or “threat” stress response, the body actually responds by anticipating physical damage and trying to minimize it — centering blood in the chest cavity so a person won’t bleed out as easily, and releasing the hormone cortisol to cope with inflammation, said Jamieson. 


“These things are tied to impaired cognitive performance, impaired memory systems. So what we’re seeing there is that things that were adaptive in the past are not so adaptive in modern society.” 


Positive effects of stress

But when the positive or “challenge” stress response takes place, it’s a very different story, said Jamieson. It can actually have very positive, adaptive impacts, particularly for performance. 


There have been studies done by Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School in Boston, that compared people who were excited, people who were dead calm and people who were threatened, he said. 


“The people who are excited (perform) much better than the people who were calm. You don’t want be calm going into an active performance situation,” he said. “‘Keep calm and carry on’ — that’s not such good advice going into acute stress situations.”


But gaining that performance boost has a lot to do with how a person interprets his stress response, said McGonigal in her TED talk. When someone experiences stress, his heart rate may speed up, he might break into a sweat and he might be breathing faster, she said.


“Normally, we interpret these physical changes as anxiety or signs that we aren’t coping very well with the pressure. But what if you viewed them instead as signs that your body is energized, is preparing you to meet this challenge?”


A negative or threat stress response leads blood vessels to constrict, said McGonigal — which is linked to cardiovascular issues. But when people view their stress response as helpful, it can actually change their biological response — their blood vessels actually do not constrict like someone who is in threat stress mode, she said. 


“Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90s.”


It may sound a bit out-there but changing your perceptions of stress really can change your physiological reactions, said Jamieson. 


“People hear about all of these things like ‘changing your mindset’ and perceptions of things, and it sounds like a bunch of mumbo jumbo. But, really, the only way your stressors get information is through your perception. You tell your body what to do — it has no idea what’s happening out in the world,” he said. 


More employee resources

So if an employer gives employees more resources — more training, more time, whatever those resources may be — their stress response will improve, he said. 


Even teaching people more about the stress response can be enough to help improve stress responses, said Achor. 


“We have tested a three-step process to change our mindset about stress. First, see it. Acknowledge you’re stressed and why.

 Second, own it. Embedded in every stress is meaning, otherwise you wouldn’t feel stress. For example, an inbox full of spam is not stressful, but one full of leads is,” he said.


“Third, use it. Utilize the emotional response to that meaning by channeling it toward a single concrete action to improve that situation.”


People view stress as just automatically negative, said Jamieson. 


“They feel stressed, and they think that’s bad… but, really, stress can be very good. It can help optimize performance. As long as it’s not too much of it for a prolonged period of time, it can be a very, very adaptive thing.”

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