The Surprising Truth About Stress

The Surprising Truth About Stress

The last few years have seen a significant increase in the number of employees experiencing high levels of stress and being at risk of burnout. We know that this is an issue across all industries and genders, however research also shows that the impact on women is particularly severe. The latest Women at Work report has found that 53% of women have experienced increased stress levels in the last 12 months and 46% of women feel burned out in 2022.

Research tells us that a quarter of all employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives. Think about your own life and work for a moment. If you wrote down the top 10 things that stress you on an everyday basis and how you felt about that, what would your list look like? What would be at the top of your list? Would it be your job, your family or something else that’s going on in your life right now?

We know that the prevalent thought around stress is how damaging it is for us and for our health. But what if that wasn’t true? What if stress was something that could work in your favour?

Because the truth is, as health psychologist Kelly McGonigal found in her research, the harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable. How you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress. When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.

There have been some fascinating studies which show how important your mindset is when it comes to stress. One such study tracked 30,000 adults for 8 years and asked them “how much stress have you experienced in the last year?” and “do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?”. The study then used public death records to find out who amongst these adults died and what they found was quite remarkable.

People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying, but that was only true for the people who also believed that stress was harmful for their health. People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress. The researchers estimated that over the 8 years they were tracking deaths, 182,000 people died prematurely, not from stress, but from the belief that stress was bad for them.

Normally, we interpret physical changes during the stress response as anxiety or signs that we aren't coping very well with the pressure. But if you view these instead as signs that your body is preparing you to meet a challenge, you can completely change the health outcomes.

The idea is to change your mindset from a ‘stress is harmful’ mindset to a ‘stress is enhancing’ mindset.

Mindset 1: Stress Is Harmful

  • Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality
  • Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity.
  • Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth.
  • The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided.

Mindset 2: Stress Is Enhancing

  • Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity
  • Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality.
  • Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth.
  • The effects of stress are positive and should be utilised.

Take a moment and reflect on this. The way most people are raised – and society in general - would arguably put most of us in mindset number one, with the view that stress is harmful.

But when you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience.

Here are some tips for how you can reframe stress for success and change your stress mindset:

  • Acknowledge stress when you experience it.
  • Welcome the stress by recognising that it’s a response to something you care about.
  • Try to make use of the energy that stress gives you, instead of wasting that energy trying to manage your stress.
  • What strengths can you draw upon to respond in the way you want?
  • How can you connect with, and care for others to increase your stress resilience?

If you want more tools and strategies for how you can manage your stress in a healthier way, check out our articles on How to deal with overwhelm and How to set effective boundaries.

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