The effects of stress can linger, research says. However the way you react to stress can be better for you, often creating more compassion.
Stress affects everyone differently. How we react to stress varies as well. Indeed, just focussing on the fact that stress is bad for you will be bad for you. And it’s because of this that positive psychology practitioner Alison Earl says what we need to focus on is not stress itself but our reaction to stress.
“I think that the message that stress is bad is missing a critical layer, which is our beliefs around stress and how they shape our experience can affect us more,” Earl says.
Long term effects
In a recent study from the Association for Psychological Science, researchers found that stress has lingering effects and can dramatically affect people’s health over time.
Each day of an eight day period the researchers asked participants if they felt a number of 13 things, such as nervous, worthless, that everything was an effort, irritable – essentially the gamut of how people react to stress. They were asked to rate each feeling on a five point scale ranging from zero (none of the time) to four (all of the time). This measured their negative affect (bad or unhealthy mood, essentially).
During the same eight day period, the researchers also asked for yes or no answers to whether or not the following things occurred:
- Almost having an argument but avoiding it
- A stressful event at work or school
- A stressful event at home
- Experiencing race, gender, or age discrimination
- Having something bad happen to a close friend or relative
- Having anything else bad or stressful happen in the last 24 hours
The researchers added up how many stressors there were and then made a daily average. They also eliminated days where stressors occurred because a key thing they were trying to test was the hypothesis that “people who experienced higher levels of negative affect in response to a stressor the day after it occurs reported increases in physical health problems, including more chronic conditions and functional limitations later in life”.
In other words, people who are unable to shake off stress from the day before would have more chronic health problems than those who could. To make this more robust, they took into account previous chronic conditions (which they define as things such as heart disease, cancer, joint aches and more).
The researchers grouped middle aged participants and surveyed them ten years apart. They were specifically looking at the connection between lingering stress and chronic conditions. The idea here is that those who are continuously stressed would develop chronic conditions.
The results showed the hypothesis was right and “increased levels of lingering negative affect significantly predicted each physical health outcome 10 years later”.
As a person who tends to stress out on the daily, whether that be over traffic, deadlines or meetings, I found this research only added to my stress levels. However Earl says the key to overcoming stress is by removing it as a barrier, and instead utilising it in a positive way.
“Leveraged stress is a powerful driver of performance, connection and growth, both professionally and personally,” she says.
That leverage can come from mindset techniques such as the intervention ROAR, which Earl developed.
- Owning the opportunity
- Activate the energy
- Recharge and reward
“ROAR is a performance related tool in terms of activating that energy that comes with stress towards something that is helpful and gets us the right sort of outcome,” she says.
‘Recognise’ involves knowing and acknowledging when you’re feeling stressed, and choosing to see it as an opportunity.
‘Owning the opportunity’ means deciding to use that stress positively while ‘activating the energy’ means using the adrenaline that comes with stress as a driver for energy, and the oxytocin that comes with stress as a driver for compassion.
The ‘recharge and reward’ is crucial. Even if you try to make stress a positive thing, it’s still physically and mentally taxing. Giving yourself time to rest after a stressful period, and rewarding yourself for a job well done, means that your stress won’t become chronic and that you’ll be more easily able to see and use it positively in the future.
Not only would a method like this seem to avoid the lingering negative affect mentioned in the study above, Earl says there are numerous benefits to harnessing techniques like ROAR.
“People who think of stress as an enhancement are better off in almost every sense, they’re healthier, they’re happier and they perform at optimal levels.”
This has been further researched and spoken about by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal.
HRM has written about McGonigal’s argument that stress is good for you. The research, which she references in her TED Talk, is called ‘Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response’.
When someone goes through something distressing, cortisol, adrenaline and oxytocin are released. Cortisol and adrenaline lead to the physical effects we’re all familiar with: your heart rate quickens, you break out in sweat and your blood vessels constrict. Oxytocin on the other hand is the chemical that is released during intimate moments like hugs or when a woman gives birth. It can create a feeling of compassion.
McGonigal says that just by rethinking your approach to stress, by focussing on the healing and compassionate aspect of stress, then you can have better health outcomes.
“Your heart has receptors for this hormone, and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage. This stress hormone strengthens your heart,” Mcgonigal says.
“And the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support.
“So when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress.”
Stress creates camaraderie
“Stress drives people in two directions. In more toxic environments it leads to blaming, mistrust and isolation. However if we can use it as a source of common experience and common humanity it can 100 per cent drive compassion, camaraderie and courage,” Earl says.
This last point is what organisations should want for their workplaces because “it also reduces our own sense of hopelessness, gives a greater sense of self efficacy, it can even eliminate the impact of traumatic events on health and longevity when we take the positive behaviour approach to stress,” Earl says.
Let’s not be too positive about stress
However realising whether or not a stressor requires or even warrants you trying to turn it into something positive is an important aspect of changing your approach to stress.
“I wouldn’t recommend everyone implores a technique like ROAR if it’s just a minor stressor which isn’t that important to them, so in that case, the ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ is a good way to go.”
However you react to it, one thing is true. Stressors are a fact of work.
“I think the reality is that a meaningful life is a more stressed out life. I don’t think it’s possible to engage in meaningful work, take pride in what you’re doing without stressors,” Earl says.
“However we want to be challenged, not threatened.”
If you are facing chronic stress then use this Lifeline guide, ‘Overcoming Stress,’ or contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.