Sometimes it can feel like the pressure in our lives will overwhelm us, as though our health would be at risk if another project was dropped on our desk or if someone got between us and our 'to do' list that day. However, health psychologists have found that we can withstand much more pressure than we think we can.
In fact, our bodies natural responses to stress provide us with some of the most effective strategies we have for combatting it. However, these highly adaptive responses can actually be limited by our beliefs in our ability to cope under pressure.1 2 This can mean that those who believe they can thrive under pressure are often the ones who do.
This has been recently demonstrated by a team of psychologists in America.2 They asked 30,000 people two questions: "How much stress have you experienced in the last year?" And, "Do you believe that stress is harmful to your health?" Over the next eight years, they tracked the participant’s health records.
Some of their findings were what you might expect; people who had experienced a lot of stress had a 43% increased risk of dying. But, their findings were somewhat surprising too. This worrying statistic was only true for people who believed that stress was harmful to their health. Actually, individuals who experienced very stressful years but weren’t bound by negative beliefs were found to have a lower risk of dying than any other group in the study – even those who experienced the least stress.
These results demonstrate that our beliefs about stress are not to be taken lightly. In fact, the same researchers reported that approximately 20,000 deaths in the US every year could be attributed to people experiencing high stress and believing that it had a negative impact on their health.3
The group of individuals with more positive perceptions of stress can provide us with some valuable insights. It seems that positively framing how we think about stress can actually make our bodies healthier and more resilient.
Shifting your perspective on stress response symptoms (increased heart rate, breathing rate, sweating, tunnel vision etc.) from being harmful to being helpful is the place to start.4
For example, if you notice that your breathing and heart rate are increasing and you feel slightly nauseous, reframe this from being a problem to an advantage. See it as your body getting ready to perform.
A study investigating people’s mental and physical responses to stress has even found that those who adopted this strategy when experiencing stress symptoms actually felt less stressed, more confident and showed more healthy cardiovascular responses.4
Typically, your heart rate goes up and your blood vessels tighten when you are under stress. For those using this technique, blood vessels remained relaxed and allowed more blood to get around their body. This biological profile is much more like that of someone feeling courageous rather than anxious.
When your mind rises to the challenge, so does your body. So, next time stress is snapping at your heels, remember that your body is built to be resilient.
- Acknowledge that you are not alone in feeling stressed, that's why Stress Awareness Month exists!
- Take courage in your physical ability to thrive in the moment.
- Reframe the negative beliefs that cast a shadow over you, because they are a key predictor of your success.
1 McGonigal, K. (2016). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it. London: Vermilion.
2 Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677-684.
3 CDC. (2011). Deaths, percent of total deaths, and death rates for the 15 leading causes of death: The United States, 1999–2007. Center for Disease Control / National Center for Health Statistics.
4 Jamieson, J. P., Nock, M. K., & Mendes, W. B. (2012). Mind over matter: reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(3), 417-422.