Can stress really be friend not foe?

Don't fight stress and it can point you in the right direction, say US psychologists. (pic courtesy of Stuart Miles/freedigitalphotos.net)

Don’t fight stress and it can point you in the right direction, say US psychologists. (pic courtesy of Stuart Miles/freedigitalphotos.net)

Relying on coping strategies to avoid stress – rather than embracing stress as a natural and welcome part of our everyday lives – could be causing us more problems in the short and long term, according to US psychologists from Stanford. They argue that stress can be more helpful than harmful, if you only change your stress mindset.

That might initially seem like an upside-down concept, particularly given the rise in recent years of mindfulness-based stress reduction courses and other stress management techniques to help quieten the mind, calm the breathing, and tame the anxious thoughts. But the Stanford research proposes that resisting stress through avoidance or procrastination, or amplifying it through catastrophic or destructive thinking, can increase instances of depression, divorce, job loss etc. In other words, all the consequences the stressed-out person is desperately seeking to avoid.

How I interpret the research is that the psychologists are suggesting we come to view stress as a way to help us meet our challenges rather than be defeated or victimised by them. Yes, they acknowledge that stress is responsible for some rather unpleasant physical and emotional consequences. Yet they argue that stress (or the response to adrenalin in fight or flight mode) is there to help us stand up to our difficulties rather than feel we need to run from them. Importantly, we don’t need to feel crushed by the weight of life’s injustices, or fear that our stress levels are another sign that we’re weak and unable to cope.

Here are three further key points from the research that I believe provide insight:

1. Go through a stressful situation, come out the other side, and you’re part way to rewiring your brain to relive and deal with another stressful situation in the future. Like having a stress vaccine to know that you won’t succumb to a stress virus in the future. They say: “Stress leaves an imprint on your brain that prepares you to handle similar stress the next time you encounter it.”

2. People who are under a lot of stress are also engaged in something they find meaningful. It’s because it matters that they become stressed. Find meaning and you’ll get stressed, but that stress will have a point. A purpose. They say: “Rather than being a sign that something is wrong with your life, feeling stressed can be a barometer for how engaged you are in activities and relationships that are personally meaningful.”

3. “We rarely get to choose the stress in our lives, and it isn’t realistic to think we can avoid stress. Given that life is going to be stressful, what do you gain by focusing on the fear that the reality of your life is killing you?”

An answer to this could be around acceptance of what you have control over, and what you don’t. Your stress levels may have to negotiate between the two.

A related blog post on this subject is How to make stress your cheerleader

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