How To Change Your Mind About Stress

Almost three-quarters of adults (74%) have at some point felt so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope, according to a UK-wide stress survey commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation in 2018. Now after a year of a global pandemic stress levels have skyrocketed for over 65% of adults.

For many people, work is the number one source of stress – juggling the multiple demands of the workplace; expectations, to-do lists, meetings and deadlines can make for a highly stressful proportion of our day. But what if, instead of an uncomfortable and debilitating sensation, stress was energising and maybe even enhancing?

PUSH Coach and Clinical Psychologist Dr Hazel Harrison talks to our clients about ‘Using Stress to Your Advantage’, helping teams develop new skills to manage the impact of stress on a day-to-day basis. We spoke to Hazel about the research behind stress and how we can change our mind about it.

The last time you felt really stressed, you probably sensed your heart racing (due to an increase of adrenaline in your bloodstream) and perhaps experienced shortness of breath and sweaty palms.

I had those sensations last week, as I stood in an empty lecture theatre before giving a presentation. The room was bigger than I’d expected and I imagined those seats occupied, with expectant faces turned towards me.

On similar occasions in the past, I would have tried to calm myself down by taking long slow breaths. I’d be worried that my stress response might hinder my ability to think. This time, I tried something different and welcomed the stress, smiled as my heart pounded and regarded my physical response as energy-giving rather than harmful. I hoped it would give me an edge and help keep the audience engaged.

The good, the bad…

A whole host of research tells us how bad stress is for our physical and psychological health. Yet there are also plenty of studies demonstrating the exact opposite: that stress can be good.

Confusingly, both sets of conclusions are true.

Stress can be harmful when it feels out of our control, devoid of meaning, or happening against our will. So pretty much all the time, right?

Well yes… and no. While it’s true that most of us find it difficult to reduce the amount of stress in our lives, what we can do is change the way we think about it: make it good, not bad.

Believe – and it will be so

Research is starting to show that our beliefs about stress influence our physiological, behavioural and psychological responses to it. In short, if your mindset says stress is harmful to you, it probably will be.

Mindsets are beliefs that influence how we behave and see the world, how we interact with others and also how our bodies respond. Many of us have a ‘stress is bad’ mindset that makes us believe we should avoid stress and that it’s harmful to our health, as well as our productivity and performance.

But researchers (like Alia Crum and Kelly McGonigal) have been testing out what happens when we teach people a ‘stress is enhancing’ mindset. Stress can make our bodies stronger, boost our immunity to illness, kick-start creativity, improve our relationships, help us see new perspectives and – in life’s riskier moments – improve our performance.

Four new ways to think about stress

Here are several ways to develop a ‘stress is enhancing’ mindset, all supported by research:

1. Use the energy and rise to the challenge

By believing we have the resources to overcome stressful events (or that we can connect with supportive people who can help us), we can move from a threat response to a challenge-response.

In this new scenario, the physical sensations we experience under stress can trigger a belief that our body is giving us the energy to rise to the challenge.

2. Find meaning

Rather than seeing stress as something to avoid, we might look at it as a way of gauging how engaged we are with our lives. Interestingly, research has found that people who believe their life has meaning also report higher levels of stress. Sometimes we feel stressed because we care a great deal about the outcome of what we’re doing.

By finding meaning within the source of our stress, we may be able to see our anxiety in a more positive light.

3. Change your relationship to everyday hassles

The hundreds of mini-stressors (like emails or chores) we experience every day can feel threatening or overwhelming – especially when clustered together. Often it’s because we see them as intrusions that get in the way of what we’re doing or want to be doing.

We can learn to see these things as uplifting or meaningful if we change our attitude. For example, I used to think ‘doing the washing’ was a hassle. Now, when working at home, I try to see hanging it on the line as a chance to take a break from my desk, and to get some fresh air.

4. Use stress as an opportunity to learn

We often want to get everything right and this can add to our feelings of stress. But if we take the pressure off ourselves and accept imperfections, we can open our minds to new experiences – and learn from the missteps.

For several hours after a strong physiological stress response, our brain is rewiring itself to imprint the experience. This means that when it happens again, we may have ways to help us cope with it better if we’re open to learning.

It’s all in the mind

Stress can be positive or negative. If you can reduce the stress in your life, then do it – there may be some benefits. But for the things you can’t change, studies show there are physiological, behavioural and psychological upsides to viewing stress more positively.

Back in the lecture theatre, I watched as the seats filled up. It was time for me to take the stage. As my heart pounded, I reminded myself ‘this is your body giving you energy – use it’. And so I began addressing the audience; funnily enough, on the topic of anxiety. But something had shifted for me. I wasn’t stressing about my stress response. The anxious thoughts that might sometimes accompany these physical sensations just weren’t there. Which left me thinking clearly, connecting with the audience and enjoying the experience.

So, the next time you find yourself in a similar position, it might be worth changing your mind about stress too.

You can follow Dr Hazel Harrison on twitter @thinkavellana

At PUSH, we believe that managing workplace stress is a shared responsibility between employers and employees. This is why, during Stress Awareness Month, we are asking the question: what are YOU doing to manage your own stress levels and those of your employees?

To help, we will be sharing advice from our expert PUSH Coaches across social media – follow us at the links below.

We are committed to helping people, teams and companies better cope with stress at work – find out more or get in touch, we’d love to work with you.