Psychology Wellbeing & Fitness

Is Stress all Bad or can it actually be Helpful?

Written by Mrs Josie Elles for Doctify

85% of Americans believe that stress is harmful and that figure probably isn’t much different on this side of the pond. However, the latest research questions if it’s really the stress itself that makes us sick or more so our attitude towards it. It seems that if we expect the stress to kill us, it more likely will.

In contrast if we see meaning in what’s causing the stress – because we are working towards a goal in line with our values for example – stress can actually be beneficial and drive us to perform at our best.

Here’s a quick self-assessment to see if something is making you good stressed or bad stressed

Think of a given situation that demands a lot from you – whether it’s physically, mentally or both.

1. Do you feel excited when thinking about this situation?

2. Do you forget the world around you when in this situation?

3. Do you get totally absorbed in this situation?

4. Do you enjoy talking to others about this situation?

5. Do you feel that although this situation is stressful, it’s still manageable?

6. Do you feel that although this situation feels stressful, you have the right capabilities to handle it?

7. Do you feel that you are bonding with others through this situation?

8. Are you sometimes surprised how much energy you wrap up to deal with this situation?

9. If the stress is causing you any bodily sensations, do these feel more like butterflies rather than pebbles?

10. Do you feel the results are worth the effort?

The more often you answered “yes” to the above questions, the more likely you are experiencing a positive form of stress, which causes a so called “challenge reaction”. This is in contrast to negative forms of stress which are often called “fight or flight” reactions. Both reactions have a physiological impact on the body: a “fight or flight reaction” may lead to heart problems, extreme tiredness or weight gain (just to name a few); a “challenge reaction” however is believed to have a beneficial impact on circulation and provide the brain with increased oxygen. Some psychologists therefore assume that it can facilitate peak performance.

But is it in our control which of the two we experience? According to Jeremy Jamieson assistant professor at the University of Rochester – it is.  In several research publications he promotes the idea that reappraising the sensations of stress is what makes all the difference. He believes that it’s not the tension and nervousness itself that cause harm but the way we interpret them. If we judge our bodily sensations to be harmful they will more likely trigger a “fight or flight reaction”. In contrast if we see them as a sign that the outcome of a given situation really matters to us, it allows us to take the situation more seriously and do our best, thus increasing the likelihood of attaining peak performance.

I suggest we look at a concrete example to bring this idea to life. Let’s assume you currently work on a very demanding project, your work life balance is out of kilter and you are really feeling the signs of stress. Now, you do seem to have a choice. A) you may start to worry about the impact on your health which most likely will drive your stress levels up even further or B) you may ask yourself how important the outcome of this project is to you, and if the answer is “very important” let the signs of stress give you an additional boost of motivation. What if the answer is “not important”? Well then it may be time to address your involvement in the project and readjust your work life balance.

Although I do support this theory, as a nutrition and health coach I have to take it with a pinch of salt. If prolonged periods of extreme stress – regardless wether it’s of negative or positive nature – leave you living on take away meals and sleep deprived, nothing good can come out of this in the long term. Sometimes we do experience mind over matter, and the purpose of this article is to make you aware of the importance of your attitude towards stress. However be careful not to take this as a carte blanche for ignoring the signs of chronic stress.

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