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Winifred Lender: Rethinking Stress — Is It a True Villain?

For years we have been told that stress is bad and should be avoided. We are counseled that prolonged stress can lead to cardiovascular disease, significantly decrease our longevity, and should always be avoided. In fact, we have become so programmed to view stress negatively that the mere mention of the word can cause people to feel “stressed.”

However, new research is questioning whether stress is actually the villain we once thought it was or whether it is really our beliefs about stress that are problematic. Accumulating research is showing that it is not stress per se that may be our foe, but rather the way we have been conditioned to view and the arousal that accompanies it.

A large-scale study of 29,000 participants conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked at the link between stress symptoms, perception of stress and longevity. The subjects were asked to rate their level of stress over the past year and how much they believed stress impacted their health. The researchers used the self-reported data and compared it to death records for eight years.

The results showed that people who reported experiencing “a lot” of stress and viewed the stress as impacting negatively on their health had the highest morality rate. In contrast, subjects who reported “a lot” of stress but did not perceive its impact as negative on their health were actually less likely to die in this time period than subjects who reported less stress but perceived it as negative.

This research suggests that it isn’t stress itself that may be dangerous to our health, but rather it is the perception of stress as a negative force that is harmful.

The finding that the perception of stress is critical to our experience of stress and our health has led researchers to explore means of altering perceptions of stress. In fact, research suggests that simple instruction in reappraising the physiological aspects of stress, seeing them as positive, can impact on performance and the enjoyment of an experience. In a University of Rochester study designed to elicit stress by having subjects engage in evaluative public speaking tasks, subjects were assigned to a reappraisal group, a placebo group (no instructions were given) and a group where subjects were told to ignore the stress.

In the reappraisal group, the focus was not on ignoring the physiological arousal stress causes, but rather on teaching the subjects to view the arousal as performance enhancing and break the automatic connection many make between the arousal and a host of negative appraisals. For example, subjects in this group were taught that a pounding heart meant that there was more blood and oxygen being pumped quickly to areas it was needed to perform well on cognitive or physical tasks. The subjects in the reappraisal group showed the following positive outcomes: less vasoconstriction and greater cardio output during the tasks, and afterwards reported less focus on the negative aspects of the experience.

The reappraisal of stress has been found to be a powerful tool outside of the laboratory and can have a lasting impact. The University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers assessed how reappraisal impacted on students preparing to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Subjects were randomly assigned to a group given instruction about reappraisal of arousal or a group where no instruction were given prior to taking a GRE practice test. The reappraisal group was told that signs of physiological arousal such as increase heart rate correlate with better performance on the test: the arousal increases the score. The results showed that subjects in the reappraisal condition performed better on the quantitative portion of the GRE mock test and actually performed better than controls on the actual GRE quantitative portion taken several months later.

In addition, the reappraisal group reported that their arousal when taking the tests helped them perform better. This research shows that reappraisal of the arousal response during stress can not only improve performance on an immediate task but can help people learn how to make the reappraisals for future tasks.

The burgeoning research shows that the relationship between stress, health and performance is mediated by our perception of the stress. If we view stress as negative and believe it will impact badly on our health and performance, we are more likely to have health issues and perform less well on tasks. It is as if the belief that stress is harmful is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In contrast, if we believe that stress, and the arousal that accompanies it, can actually enhance our performance and will not impact negatively on out health, we are more likely to be healthy and perform better on certain tasks. Taken together, this emerging research indicates that we need to rethink how we perceive stress and the arousal that accompanies it. Instead of avoiding stress, ignoring it or fighting the arousal it elicits, we need to reappraise it with a focus on its performance-enhancing qualities.

Stress itself is not the villain we may have been taught to believe it is; we have the power to moderate its impact. In fact, with the right attitude, stress can actually improve performance without negative implications. Moreover, we can learn to differentiate between types of stress and seek out “positive stress” or growth-enhancing stress. My next column will focus on how to identify positive stress.

Now go rethink how you perceive stress!

Specific suggestions for reappraising stress follow:

» Realize that it is not the stress itself that can have negative consequences for us, but rather our perception of the stress that is problematic.

» Become aware of what your perception of stress is.

» Try a free association activity where you divide a piece of paper in half and write down all the negative words that come to mind when you think of the word stress in one column.

» Challenge yourself to write all the positive experiences you have had as a result of stress in the other column (i.e., it motivates me to get things done, I feel great when I do something that was very stressful at first, I feel like I am a good role model for my children when I tackle a stressful activity).

» Evaluate what data there is to support the entries in each column. For example, is it really true that stress makes you feel too tired to exercise, and is it accurate that stress makes you eat more? Any entries that aren’t accurate, you should cross out.

» Practice reciting the positive statements you have written regarding stress daily to make them automatic.

» Reappraise the physiological arousal that accompanies stress; explore how it can be performance enhancing. Remind yourself how your increased heart rate pushes more blood and oxygen through your body to enhance your ability on mental and physical tasks.

» Challenge yourself to break the cycle of automatic thoughts you have when you get aroused during stress.

Before entering a stressful situation do the following:

» Practice stating your positive statements about how stressful experiences has been positive for you.

» Repeat the facts you have learned about how the physiological arousal of stress can help your performance and ensure there is no negative dialogue.

» Remember that if you believe a stressful experience can be positive, it can be.

» When you are in the stressful situation being cognizant of “turning on” your positive statements about how physiological arousal can be performance enhancing.

» Try to catch and correct any negative statements about stress by replacing them with more accurate and flexible ones. For example, instead of thinking, “I always do badly in stressful situations,” choose a more accurate description of the situation: “It isn’t true that I always do badly in a stressful situation, there have been many times, I have been successful.”

Remember that changing how you perceive stress and reappraising arousal will require time and effort, but the payoff for your health and overall performance can be great.

— Winifred Lender Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). She provides cognitive-behavioral therapy for sleep regulation issues, anxiety and depression, and completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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