The Positive Power of Stress

Take a glance through your Twitter feed and you’ll find constant warnings about the many ways that stress is destroying us. Studies have shown that youth experience greater stress than older people. For today’s youth that’s exacerbated by the constant stress generators created through social media. Most efforts to help our youth manage stress are focused in two areas: eliminating stress and offsetting the stress with non-stressful activities. These efforts are well intentioned but may not be the most effective. Recent studies have demonstrated that one of the most effective ways to help youth manage stress is to not escape it but take it head on. Teaching people to embrace the positive outcomes of stress can eliminate the negative impacts and improve performance.

Technology advances and societal maturity may have shifted the stress inducers from generation to generation but the existence of stress has not changed. Whether its early man stressing about finding food or keeping their offspring alive or today’s world of students trying to get into a good college, parents managing their work and family balance and older couples struggling with retirement finances, stress is universal. The American Psychological Association lists common effects of stress as loss of sleep, changes in appetite, panic attacks, asthma attacks, weight gain and heart disease. Additionally, studies on rats have shown prolonged stress shrank the dendrites in the parts of the brain that control emotional responses, decision-making and memory.

However, not all stress is equal. It is widely accepted that some stress is good. The pressure of public speaking, performing in front of a large audience or finishing a last minute assignment drives focus and energy, and therefore improved performance, for many. We all know that a degree of physical stress, such as working out, makes us stronger. The long held view though is that there is a breaking point, both physically and mentally, where excessive stress or prolonged stress causes breakdowns. If stress can be both positive and negative are there ways to make more of our everyday stress positive? Or are we better off trying to manage it away?

Stress management is a constant subject of conversation at workplaces and schools. At work I get healthy living newsletters and classes made available to help me keep my day-to-day stress in check. In my town’s local high school they have introduced visits from anxiety dogs during stressful exam weeks. There are “stress free weeks” where students don’t have their normal load of homework (although presumably need to make up the work later to keep with testing standards, which likely adds to stress levels.) Additionally, there are sessions teaching students stress management and how to take breaks and find “happy exercises” to offset the stress. These efforts are all done with the best intentions to help teens manage their genuinely stressful lives.

The underlying message of most teachings today is clear: Stress is bad! You need to find ways to reduce it or offset it or you will break down, suffer from mental or physical illnesses, get sick and likely die early. By constantly teaching our youth that stress is an evil to be aggressively avoided we may be making the situation worse. We’re causing anxiety by teaching them how dangerous this ever-present stress can be. This is the household equivalent of yelling at your kids to relax. Stress can be reduced at times but stress is not completely avoidable. We’re creating a culture of anxiety.

After one week the group that saw the positive video showed higher engagement levels and fewer health problems than before while the other groups saw no change

New research, described in a July issue of The Economist, suggests that simply changing the way you think about stress can have a positive impact on performance and reduce the negative physical and mental impacts normally associated with stress. Alicia Crum, of Stanford University’s Mind and Shawn Achor, author of “The Happiness Advantage”, conducted a study at UBS during the height of the financial crisis in 2008. Of three groups of bankers one group saw a video stating that stress can enhance performance, while another saw a video warning of the dangers of stress and the third group saw no video. After one week the group that saw the positive video showed higher engagement levels and fewer health problems than before while the other groups saw no change[1].

Jeremy Jamieson, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester, performed a similar test on students preparing for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). One group of students received a talk extolling the virtues of stress as a performance booster while other groups received no talk at all. Saliva tests after the test showed all students experienced high levels of stress but those that received the intervention scored higher on their GREs [2].

Further research has shown similar results. Teaching people about the positives of stress and how to embrace that can improve their performance in stressful situations while also reducing the negative physical and mental impacts of stress.

Most stress is unavoidable. And most stress comes from things that matter to us: our studies, our jobs, our relationships, our well-being. Stress is real. Yes, it is important to help our youth worry less about some things in their lives — Instagram likes on their vacation photos — but we need to stop conditioning a fear of stress. Stress can be positive; let’s teach kids how to embrace the positive power of stress and help them improve their performance and safeguard their health.




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