Stress – Friend or Foe?

Let’s start by looking at a few definitions of stress. Lazarus & Folkman (1984) define stress as ‘A particular relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her wellbeing’. Similarly, Selye (1956) defined stress as ‘Something that seriously affects one’s homeostasis’.

In a nutshell stress is our perception that we won’t be able to cope with the challenge’s life is presently throwing at us; it bombards us with feelings of fear and anxiety, perhaps sometimes even anger.

A stressor is something that is trying to disrupt our balance. They can present themselves as physiological threats, such as a car accident or a sports injury. They can also present in psychological form through our perceptions of danger. Let’s take University as an example. Say you have just received a fail for your recent exam paper, your brain may perceive this as a threat as it has the ability to catapult you into worry about what happens next.

“How am I going to afford another year of studies if I fail?”

“How am I going to tell my parents that I failed?”

After asking ourselves these questions, we notice that our heart begins to beat a little faster than usual, our mouth becomes a little dry and our hands begin to sweat; we have activated our stress response.

During the stress response a cascade of hormones are released that ignite physiological changes, some of which have already been mentioned. These hormones, alongside the activation of sympathetic nervous system prepare us to deal with the threat at hand.

According to Robert Yerkes and John Dodson (1908) stress is good for you, up until a point. The psychologists hypothesised that little to no stress leaves us feeling bored and uninterested but too much stress leaves us feeling frazzled and drained. In between the two is the ‘sweet spot’ where we perform at our best. Furthering this, it is common among literature that chronic exposure to stress can have serious health consequences such as heart disease and obesity (McEwen & Sapolsky, 2006).

So too much stress is bad for you, right? To an extent yes, but what if your belief about stress is the bigger factor in this misunderstood equation?

Keller, Litzelman, Wisk et al (2012) tracked the deaths of Americans over an 8-year period. They identified that 182,000 died not from stress itself, but the belief that stress is bad for you. The researchers suggested that individuals who had the perception that stress has a negative effect on their health, accompanied by a large volume of self-reported stress had an increased risk of premature death.

So, what if we began to view those physiological changes as our body becoming energised? Preparing us to tackle the challenge head on. By training ourselves to view the stress response as a positive, we can begin to feel more confident, less anxious and have a healthier heart (Jameson, Nock & Mendes, 2012).

When you choose to view your own stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage” Kelly McGonigal (2013).

References

Jamieson, J., Nock, M., & Mendes, W. (2012). Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(3), 417-422. doi: 10.1037/a0025719

Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L., Maddox, T., Cheng, E., Creswell, P., & Witt, W. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677-684. doi: 10.1037/a0026743

Lazarus, R., & Folkman, S. (1986). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer.

McEwen, B., & Sapolsky, R. (2006). Stress and Your Health. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 91(2), 0-0. doi: 10.1210/jcem.91.2.9994

McGonigal, K. (2013). How to make stress your friend [Video File). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcGyVTAoXEU

Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., & Siegel, S. (2005). Stress and Health: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1(1), 607-628. doi: 10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.1.102803.144141

Selye, H. (1956). The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw Hill.

Yerkes, R., & Dodson, J. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18(5), 459-482. doi: 10.1002/cne.920180503