Donders Wonders

Should we embrace stress?

This post is also available in Dutch.

When you think of stress you immediately think of health issues, trouble, something you have to get rid of as soon as possible. But it’s actually this negative attitude that’s a problem. Is it time to embrace stress?

Lots of things can cause stress. Image courtesy of Pexels (CC0).

Whenever I have to speak in public the same thing happens: my breathing gets faster, my heart starts to pound, and I start to blush. You are probably familiar with these signs of stress, perhaps also from having to speak in public, or from a job interview or the awkward silence at a big family gathering when mother dearest asks about your love-life. Ugh!

It’s not stress itself, but the attitude towards, that is lethal
Because long-term stress is related to several negative consequences, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and even psychological issues such as burnout and anxiety disorders, most people see stress as the enemy: a discomfort you have to get rid of as soon as possible.

However, research suggests that it’s this negative attitude towards stress that brings about the negative consequences. American scientists investigated the health statistics of almost 30,000 Americans over a period of 9 years. They discovered that people who experienced a lot of stress and were convinced that it was a disadvantage were 43% more likely to die earlier. People who experienced a lot of stress but did not believe that this was a bad thing did not have this increased risk of earlier death. It appears that it’s not the actual feeling of stress , but the attitude towards it, that determines the chance of dying.

Using stress in a positive way is healthy and boosts performance
What is it that makes stress so much better for you if you don’t see it as a negative thing? How can we change stress into something positive ourselves? For answers, we can look to studies on cognitive reappraisal. In many such studies, participants are taught to approach stress differently. They are shown that the bodily response to a stressful event can be seen as the body’s way of adjusting in order to perform better. This is truly the case: faster breathing and heart rates provide the brain with more oxygen, which makes you better able to respond to the stressful event.

People who used this new mindset interpreted stress differently and were able to perform better in stressful and difficult tasks. In addition, their bodily response to stress became healthier. Thus, a relatively simple explanation and reappraisal of stress can have significant consequences.

Should we all embrace stress?
In short it seems like it’s good, when in a stressful situation (like when giving a presentation) to think of the stress as something positive and to let it help you perform better. However, you do still need to be careful with stress. Although people with higher stress levels who don’t see stress as a negative thing don’t have an increased risk of dying, higher stress levels are linked to worse (mental) health. It is still a good idea to find moments to relax to minimize the amount of stress in your life. Embrace stress responsibly, I would say.

Want to know more?
This blog was based on the inspiring TED talk by psychologist Kelly McGonical. Follow the link below to watch the full talk. From 7:30 onwards she even explains the effect of stress on social contact via oxytocin — really worth watching!

This blog is written by Angelique, edited by Annelies and translated by Jill.


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