Research suggests, that when stress is managed correctly, stress can actually have a positive impact on your productivity and performance.
We read a great deal about the impact of stress, particularly the negative effects it can have on our brain, our bodies, and long term health. It’s key to be aware of the negative impact of stress but it’s equally, if not more, important to understand why we get stressed and, how to more positively manage this.
Stress is a significant factor in mental health problems including anxiety and depression. It is also linked to physical health problems like heart disease, problems with our immune system, insomnia, and digestive problems. Individually we need to understand what is causing us personal stress and learn what steps we can take to reduce it for ourselves and those around us.Mental Health Foundation, May 2018
In this post, my intention is to help you better understand stress, so you can more positively manage it, for an improved self-management and personal wellbeing.
What is stress?
We all know what it’s like to feel stressed, but it’s not easy to pin down exactly what stress means. When we say things like “this is stressful” or “I’m stressed”, we might be talking about:
Situations or events that put pressure on us – for example, times where we have lots to do and think about, or don’t have much control over what happens.
Our reaction to being placed under pressure – the feelings we get when we have demands placed on us that we find difficult to cope with.
A UK-wide stress survey has found that almost three-quarters of adults (74%) have at some point over the past year felt so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.Mental Health Foundation. May 2018
What happens when we get ‘stressed’?
When we feel anxious, our bodies release hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. (This is the body’s automatic way of preparing to respond to a threat, sometimes called the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response). As the amygdala reacts to a threat (or the stressor) the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system, which releases adrenaline. The adrenal cortex releases cortisol for continued alertness.
While stress itself is not necessarily problematic, the buildup of cortisol in the brain can have long-term effects. If you’re often stressed then you’re probably producing high levels of these hormones, which can make you feel physically unwell and could affect your health in the longer term.
Thus, chronic stress can lead to health problems. The signs of continued and long term stress can present themself in the body as shown below.
Stress also has a negative impact on our brains and our cognitive thinking, resulting is weaker control of thought, emotions and actions.
The diagram below is from A. Arnsten’s article ‘How coronavirus stress may scramble our brains’, SCIENCE NEWS (May 24th, 2020) in which he says, “Normally, an alert person’s brain has moderate amounts of chemical messengers that lead the prefrontal cortex to take charge and perform high-level thinking (below left). But with stress, those chemical signals can flood the brain, activating amygdala-linked brain networks involved in sensing and responding to threats (below right).“
“Even relatively mild stress can impair the prefrontal cortex, that’s one of the most robust effects of stress on the brain.”Elizabeth Phelps – Psychologist and Neuroscientist at Harvard University
The long-term impact of stress on our brains is alarming, including increased risk of depression, poor sleep, decreased motivation, and mental agility. The cover image for this article shows the impact of long term stress and was taken from the article ‘How chronic stress changes the brain – and what you can do to reverse the damage’, March 11th 2020 .
So, how can we more positively manage stress, not only to reduce its impact but also, have a positive impact on our productivity and performance?
Firstly, not all stress is negative. Stress can be positive and can actually help improve motivation, focus, and performance. The image below describes EUSTRESS – Positive Stress and DISTRESS – Negative Stress.
The ‘trigger point’ or ‘stress threshold’, where stress moves from positive ‘Eustress’ to negative ‘Distress’, varies from person to person, situation to situation (e.g., Work vs. Personal), and is based on individual strengths, challenges, personal wellbeing, and personal history.
You can improve your ‘stress threshold’, and better manage stress, by making positive changes to support your physical and mental wellbeing, such as eating more healthily, exercising regularly, and getting sufficient rest.
Also, research shows that our attitude and approach toward stress can either increase or decrease actual stress levels within us.
In a study conducted by Shawn Achor, an expert in positive psychology, and Yale researcher Alia Crum, they worked with 380 managers to see if stress could be shifted from debilitating to enhancing merely by changing mindset at work.
The findings of our study were significant: when an individual thought about stress as enhancing, instead of debilitating, they embraced the reality of their current stress level and used it to their advantage. The negative parts of stress (distress) started to diminish because the fight-or-flight response was not activated, and the individual felt more productive and energetic, as well as reporting significantly fewer physical symptoms associated with distress (such as headaches, backaches, fatigue). In addition, on a scale of 1 to 4, productivity assessment moved from 1.9 to 2.6 — a significant shift. Life satisfaction scores also increased, which in previous studies has been found to be one of the greatest predictors of productivity and happiness at work.Make Stress Work for You – Harvard Business Review, Shawn Achor, February 15, 2011
The image below demonstrates how stress can be a positive catalyst to improve performance, helping improve focus, and motivation.
Shawn Achor adds, “Stress can be good or bad depending on how you use it,”
Either side of the ‘optimum stress’ zone, a lack of stress, or healthy tension, can leave you feeling bored and de-motivated. Stress overload, on the other hand, can leave you feeling exhausted and can increase anxiety, the risk of panic attacks, and fuel anger, and burn-out. It is key to be alert to the signs of both boredom and stress overload if you are to manage stress to achieve a more positive outcome.
‘Altering your approach to stress can yield positive effects’Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others
Below is a list of suggestions to support more positive stress management, These are a combination of my own suggestions, and those of Justin Menkes, author of ‘Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others’.
1. Recognize worry and stress for what it is – a feeling
“When you hear about stress being unhealthy it is so often because people aren’t getting to a place where they are seeing worry for what it is: a feeling,” says Menkes. The heightened reaction — tension in the body, heart racing — is an indicator of how much you care about the task you are about to do. In fact, according to Menkes, how much stress you feel is directly correlated to the importance of the activity. “If it didn’t matter, you wouldn’t worry,” he says. Once you understand worry as an indicator rather than a symptom of dysfunction or a cause for panic, you can react to it more rationally. Plus, remember that stress is not unending. “Feelings by definition are fleeting. They feel like they will be eternal but just give it five minutes,” says Menkes.
2. Re-frame stress
Once you’ve recognized what worry is, you then need to adjust your mindset. Shawn Achor’s research shows that how you view stress determines its effect on you. “Our brains work much better at positive than at negative, neutral, or stressed,” he says. When you are negative and worried, your brain goes into “fight or flight” mode, which limits your ability to think. If you are positive and concerned, then your brain turns to “broaden and build” thinking which allows you to process more possibilities. Which direction you go in is up to you. “When people have a stressor in their life, they can attempt to see it as a challenge, instead of a threat,” says Achor. This mental shift will allow the feeling to be activating rather than paralyzing.
3. Focus on what you can control
One of the most positive things you can do when faced with worry or anxiety is to consider what is in your control and what is not. ‘Letting go’ of what is not in your control, or what is not important, helps reduce pressure, empowering you to focus on what is in your control.
4. Develop your relationships
Build supportive relationships when you’re not stressed. Invest in those who will support you when needed and, support them when they need it too. Build relationships with positive, solution-focused individuals who can support you to find ways to overcome the challenges and stresses that inevitably appear in our lives, rather than those who focus on the negatives and obstacles to positive change.
5. Invest in your stress management skills, including emotional and mind management skills
The best way to manage stress is to better understand it for what it is and, to better understand yourself. You can learn more about the impact of emotions and how you can manage these more effectively in a separate post from 4PositiveGrowth. Alternatively, the MENS SANA (Healthy Mind) self-development programme that I deliver, takes you on a 13-week journey of self-discovery and improved self-management, and includes 1-hour coaching sessions on ‘Handling Stress’, ‘Mind Management’, Emotional Management, and Achieving a Balanced Life, to name just a few of the 13 empowering sessions.
Learn more about the MENS SANA programme here.
Useful Principles for more positive stress management – a summary:
- Think of stress as an indicator that you care about something, rather than a cause for panic
- Focus on the task, rather than the emotion
- Build relationships with positive, solution-focused people who you can turn to in times of stress
- Remember that stress is an emotional reaction and it is not going to last forever
- Focus on what is within your control, rather than worrying about what is not
- Invest in your stress management skills, including mind and emotional management
- Make positive changes to support your physical and mental wellbeing, such as eating more healthily, exercising regularly, and getting sufficient rest