Conventional wellness wisdom might persuade us to eliminate stress as much as possible. But psychologists say not so fast.
A study published this year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that students taught to view stress as a coping tool performed better on math exams than students told to put stress out of their minds. The researchers behind the study say it’s more evidence that stress can be the key, not the inhibitor, to success.
We are often told stress is a bad thing, says the lead researcher Jeremy Jamieson, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and the principal investigator of the Social Stress Lab at the University of Rochester in New York.
And, while long-term or chronic stress that doesn’t go away is bad for our health, our body’s natural stress response can be helpful when it comes to our health and well-being. “It's actually a resource,” Dr. Jamieson says. “It's actually something that's steeling your ability to succeed and perform.”
Stress is the body’s normal and natural reaction to changes in the environment it perceives as challenging. Our stress response triggers a series of physical and mental processes (your heart starts to beat faster, you feel more energized, and you become more alert, among other effects) to help your body meet the challenge it perceives (whether that’s escaping a burning building or kicking yourself into high gear because you’re running late for an important meeting).
And that’s why stress can be a tool to help, rather than hinder. All those changes boost your body’s ability to respond.
“We're trying to get you out of the mindset about stress as this bad thing that's harming you,” Jamieson says.
Instead, Jamieson’s team is working on strategies to help people reframe how they perceive stress, so they can indeed use it to face (and succeed in meeting) the many challenges life throws at us, rather than be paralyzed by it. In psychology, the term for this is “cognitive reframing,” and it’s a technique that’s been well-studied.
According to a review article published in February 2020 in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion (Jamieson is a coauthor), a growing body of evidence suggests that teaching people the usefulness and benefits of stress can improve stress responses, enhance performance, and boost well-being.
The new study from Jamieson and his team adds further evidence that cognitive reframing works, by testing the theory in the face of a real-world stressor: math exams.
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Seeing Stress as a Tool Helped Students Test Better
In this study of 339 community college students, the researchers gave one group of students a short text explaining what happens in your body when you get stressed and why stress can help boost performance in challenging situations if you think about it as a coping tool rather than a hindrance (stress reappraisal). The other group read a few paragraphs on the stress response, but with a recommendation not to think about any stress that came up. Both groups were then asked to briefly describe how the information might help them perform on exams.
Over the course of a semester, the researchers tracked the students’ math test scores, had the students answer questions about anxiety levels before their exams, and collected saliva samples to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
The group that had read about stress reappraisal performed better on exams, had lower levels of math anxiety, and even had lower cortisol levels than the group told to keep stress out of their minds throughout the semester when they took tests.
The research shows that stress is damaging only if you perceive you don't have the resources to handle it, says Sarah Pressman, PhD, a researcher at the University of California in Irvine who researches the interplay between positive emotions and health (she was not involved in the new study). If you see stress as a tool, you’re more likely to view the stressful situation as a challenge.
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Can You Reframe All Stress to Work in Your Favor?
These techniques work best just before performance situations like academic testing or public speaking, scenarios where you have an opportunity to see your stress response as useful before you respond to the challenge you’re facing.
If you’re suffering from a panic attack, this technique probably won’t work, Jamieson says. The stress in that case is no longer functional because you’re already responding to whatever the challenge is. That’s why cognitive reframing is used as a therapy for panic attacks before you have an attack, not during them, according to the American Psychological Association.
Jamieson says he doesn’t know whether these techniques would work as well for students coping with social or other stressors, because the study was limited to academic stress. But his group is planning research that will look more broadly at mindset strategies and stress reappraisal that can be applied to any context.
Pressman adds that it would be interesting to test other physical stress response signals beyond changes in stress hormone levels.
Another interesting finding from the study, she adds, is that the control group who received the instruction to ignore stress appeared to perform worse over time, even to a greater degree than the intervention group performed better. “Maybe this stress avoidance thing is actually really bad and we shouldn't tell people not to think about the stress,” she says.
Jamieson points out, however, that an older study he coauthored that was also published in the Journal of Experimental Psychologyshowed there was no difference between test performance for individuals told to ignore stress and those told nothing at all. The academic performance of the control group was also similar to student performance generally in previous semesters, he says.
How You Can View Stress as a Tool Rather Than a Detriment
If you’re worried about an upcoming event at which you need to perform in some way — a presentation at work or a toast at a wedding — here’s how you might reframe stress as something useful.
1. Unlearn ‘Stress Is Bad’
In Jamieson’s upcoming research, he and a team will look at strategies geared at unlearning the “stress is bad” mindset. Remember the last time you got excited about something? That’s actually your stress response at work. “People do not consider that many positive affective states, like excitement, are stress responses,” he says.
2. Notice When Stress Shows Up
Be aware of what stresses you out and how it shows up for you, says Darlene Mininni, MD, MPH, the health psychologist who created the undergraduate well-being LifeSkills course at the University of California in Los Angeles. Pay attention to the specific ways your body responds to stress, she says. (They can be emotional and physical.) “When stress shows up for me, I notice my jaw clenches. My heart is pounding. I’m sweating,” she says. That’s the stress response at work.
3. Change the Message
Once you’ve recognized stress underway, remind yourself that this reaction is normal, and may even be useful. “Maybe this is a sign that your body is actually giving you energy,” suggests Dr. Mininni, who is also a member of the Everyday Health Wellness Advisory Board.
4. Plan Ahead
It’s helpful, also, to plan ahead, Mininni says. While we never know what curveballs life is going to throw at us, many of us have a fairly good idea of the types of situations that tend to stress us out. Think about what you’ve said or tried in the past that hasn’t worked and plan for how you’re now going to handle it differently in the future, Mininni suggests.
5. Practice Techniques to Keep Stress Under Control
Remember, stress becomes harmful when you see the stress response as bigger than the actual stressor your body is responding to. Some people may find benefits in practicing techniques to first turn down the volume and intensity of your stress response, like deep breathing techniques, and then facing the challenge at hand, Mininni says. Find what works for you.
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