The Stress Paradox

The entrenched belief that stress is always bad has remained unchallenged. High levels of pressure and the feeling of being overwhelmed are common catalysts of stress. The lack of control causes us to experience restlessness, the inability to concentrate and fatigue. This results in reduced productivity and decreased memory functioning which causes us to feel powerless, consequently inducing more stress and ultimately resulting in an endless stress cycle.

Let’s think back to the last time we experienced stress. Unsurprisingly, it will most likely not have been too long ago. Usually, we associate the psychological and physical effects of stress, such as increased heart rate and faster breathing, with the inability to cope under pressure or as a result of feeling overwhelmed. These effects cause us to feel out of control and therefore we may experience restlessness and a lack of motivation. However, Psychologist Dr Kelly McGonical argues “what if we believed that these signs of stress are simply signs of our bodies preparing us for the challenges ahead.”

In 2011, Harvard University conducted research where they invited participants to go through a “social stress test.” Before the test the participants were told that the body’s stress response which would occur due to induced stress, was to be regarded as “helpful.” That the increased heart rate was the result of “your body preparing you for action” and that the faster breathing was to “increase the oxygen supply to the brain.”

During periods of intensified stress our blood vessels undergo vasoconstriction and our hearts beat faster. However, throughout the study the participants experienced the complete opposite. After the participants were told to regard their body’s stress response as helpful, their blood vessels remained relaxed, exhibiting the same response as during periods of joy. The participants remained more focused, attentive and confident, causing them to perform at higher levels.

Acknowledging that feeling stressed is an inevitable and natural response, may encourage you to view the stress response as a way of preparing for the upcoming challenge. According to research conducted by psychologist Dr Alia Crum ‘our stress mindset determines our biological response to stress.’ If we believe that we are incapable of coping with the situation are stress levels will continue to elevate as we will experienced increased worry, reducing our productivity. If we believe that stress can be good for us, our bodies ‘will release hormones that will encourage and motivate us to face the challenges.’

Perhaps a way to manage stress is to not regard the physiological responses as a sign of feeling overwhelmed and out of control, but instead to regard the body’s stress response as a method of preparing to withstand the upcoming challenge.

Wiktoria – 6.1