Stress is a word we all use, all of the time, to describe many different scenarios and our physical and mental response to them. “My work’s a bit stressful at the moment” is a phrase most of us say, week in, week out – when a big presentation is looming or that pile of unanswered emails begins to feel insurmountable. In this case, the stress is usually manageable: we use our body’s "fight or flight" response (the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which raise blood pressure and heart rate, and prepare us physically to confront impending threats) to gear ourselves up to tackle the pressurised event and, once it’s over, we return to feeling relaxed. But when the tension and anxiety linger, and don’t go away once hurdles are overcome, there’s a strong risk of more unpleasant, long-term effects on both our bodies and minds.
In whatever circumstance we experience stress, though, we tend to view it as a negative force. Which is why it is surprising to discover that many scientists and psychologists have suggested that stress can in fact have advantages, as well as disadvantages, on our individual wellbeing. A recently published study by Erik Gonzalez-Mulé found that a stressful job can actually be good for your health when combined with high levels of control in decision-making. The paper tracked thousands of workers in their 60s over the course of seven years and found that those in high-stress roles where they felt they had freedom and control were 34% less likely to die than those in less stressful jobs. That said, employees in high-stress roles with low control were at the highest risk of unhealthy habits and early death. So the question is: how do we identify the “good stress” that can be harnessed to live a happier and healthier life, and what are the warning signs that the stress we’re experiencing is exceeding our ability to cope and plunging us into dangerous territory?
“When we’re talking about the notion of stress being good for you, I’m a little bit uncomfortable with the term ‘stress’ because, to me, stress is bad,” responds Dr. Gail Kinman, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire. “What you can say is that pressure can be healthy. There is something called the Yerkes-Dodson model which was developed over 100 years ago, and it’s so plausible. Essentially you have to find out the level of pressure that allows you to achieve peak performance.”
“If you have too little pressure, you’re going to be really bored and your performance and your health will suffer,” she explains. “For example, most people at some stage have done jobs that have been way below their abilities and often they end up doing them badly because they just switch off. Equally, if there’s too much pressure, your performance will suffer because it’s just too much; you can’t meet the demand. So the pressure needs to be at this particular type of level – the optimum level, let’s say – and that’s going to be different for different people. It’s finding out where that tipping point is.”
There are various ways of identifying when the level of pressure you find yourself under is shifting from the motivating towards the unhealthy, Dr. Kinman continues. “Try to preempt the signals that your body and mind are giving you; the early-warning triggers that show you’re starting to feel uncomfortable. Like I get really ratty,” she laughs. “And then that is the time to realise that you should be doing something different. Self-knowledge and prioritising your self-care is really important.”
People who are exposed to small but regular amounts of stress can make themselves more immune: this is known as stress inoculation
Professor Stephen Joseph, a registered coaching psychologist with the British Psychology Society and author of Authentic: How to be Yourself and Why it Matters, concurs. “When we’re not leading an authentic life – when we have a niggling sense of anxiety, depression, stress – then it is usually an indication that it’s time to seek a bigger change in our life; to find a life that’s more true to ourselves.” He similarly believes that “good stress” isn’t actually stress at all. “When people are authentic, they will naturally seek out opportunities to push themselves to grow; to learn to develop; to be the best they can be. That may be challenging, it may be difficult, but it’s not stress. Equally, it’s the people who steer clear of this other type of pressure – people who try to avoid ‘stress’ altogether by shying away from a promotion at work, or staying in the same job, for example, to try and minimise those external demands on them – who are in fact experiencing the negative stress of leading an inauthentic life.”
So, having established the line between what constitutes good stress – or "positive pressure" – and "negative stress", the question that remains is can the negative kind ever be good for you? Interestingly, yes. “People who don’t have any stress in their lives at all are more likely to crumble at the first hurdle,” explains Dr. Kinman, “Whereas it is thought that people who are exposed to small but regular amounts of stress can make themselves more immune: this is known as stress inoculation.” This is particularly effective if you have been exposed to “a number of situations that are mildly stressful in your childhood and have survived those situations well, probably with the help of your parents and your friends,” says Peter Kinderman, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool. “This is because you will have developed ways of responding to stressful events which will stand you in good stead when you come across stress triggers later on.”
For those of us who haven’t developed the tools to counteract stressful situations – whether that’s down to a lack of previous exposure or simply because the demands we face are beyond our natural coping abilities – there are ways of training yourself to deal with stress more positively, says Dr. Kinman. “Sometimes it can depend on how you label your internal feelings. If you look at the heart rate and blood pressure of a skydiver, they go through the roof just before they jump out of the plane. And of course if somebody is very stressed, their heart rate will be very high as well. But the people jumping out of an aeroplane are doing it because they find it exciting and challenging; they’re labelling this experience in a different type of way. So that’s one way you can try and turn the experience around.”
When this is impossible because the level of pressure simply feels too high, there is also a lot to be said for believing that you have the resources to cope with the problem, she adds. “CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] can be very useful in spotting thinking errors – I’m a firm believer in interrogating the statements that start with should/shouldn’t, must/mustn’t. It can also help to think what advice you’d give to your closest friend, because often we’re much harder on ourselves than we are on other people. But one of the most important things is trying to be flexible in responding to demands: think, what resources do I have (whether they’re internal or external); what else can I try?” Professor Joseph agrees: “Being flexible in our approach to stress is the key, which again comes down to being honest with ourselves. People who really know themselves have a healthy ability to realistically appraise situations. They don’t get trapped into a rigid mindset, and they can eventually find the right way of coping.”
This article was first published November 16, 2016.