Why do some people seem to thrive upon stress, and others crumble under the slightest pressure?
Stress is unavoidable in modern life, but how you think about stress can make a difference to its impact. Work, money and family all create daily stress, while bigger issues like politics and terrorism contribute to our underlying stress levels.
But approach it the right way, and it won’t rule your life — it can even be good for you. Here are ways to deal with stress, reduce its harm and even use your daily stress to make you stronger.
How do you think about the stress in your life?
Whilst we know that stress is associated with health problems, plenty of people with high-stress lives are thriving. How is that possible? In 2012, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a seminal study looking at how 28,000 people perceived stress in their lives. People in the study answered these two questions:
1. During the past 12 months, would you say that you experienced:
- A lot of stress
- A moderate amount of stress
- Relatively little stress
- Almost no stress at all
2. How much effect has stress had on your health?
- A lot
- Hardly any
The researchers looked at death rates in the study group over nine years. The results are startling. The study found that having a lot of stress in your life was not linked with premature death. But having a lot of stress in your life and believing it was taking a toll on your health increased risk of premature death by 43 percent.
Stress and the victim mentality
A classic study by Yerkes and Dodson (1908) identified the popular “bathtub” curve relationship between pressure and performance. Too little stress leaves people laid back and unmotivated to perform at their best. As deadlines loom, most people raise their game and performance and creativity increase. Beyond this point, people become overwhelmed by stress and performance tails off. And more interesting is that around this point, people tend to have a perception shift, driven by increasing stress hormones and a tendency to become defensive, moving from being the person in control of their situation, to someone at the mercy of external forces.
This perception shift has a habit of making people feel anxious and powerless to resolve the issue, and at that point they become focused on self-preservation, and have a tendency to focus on the stress and the impact it is having, rather than dealing with it and getting back to the healthy level of stress that let them perform at their best.
How anxiety changes perception
We all know that anxiety affects our emotional state and makes interacting with the world more difficult, but what may be less obvious is how it changes what we focus our attention on throughout the day. By biasing attention, anxiety alters what we are conscious of, and in turn, the way we experience reality. This can have profound consequences. Anxiety’s effects on attention can even your shape worldview and belief systems.
This is because the brain’s aim is to find more of what we are looking for. Optimistic people tend to focus on the positive and aren’t dragged down by the negative things that happen to them, or tend not to look for meaning behind the negative. Anxiety tends to focus our attention on that which made us anxious in the first place, which becomes a vicious cycle; if you look out for the things that make you feel bad, you’ll find more of them and that will sustain or increase the anxiety.
So going back to the Wisconsin-Madison study, those that believed that stress was affecting their health, were right! If you feel like the victim of stress, you are less likely to do anything about it, whereas those that accept stress as a natural part of modern living are more likely to have strategies to manage, or even thrive under the same pressure that would make another person ill.
If you feel like the victim of stress, you are less likely to do anything about it. If you accept stress as a natural part of life, you are more likely to manage or thrive on it.
Hacking your nervous system to handle stress
Your emotions, thoughts and feelings are closely linked with your biology. Heart Rate Variability, a measurement used by athletes and astronauts to measure health, can also detect emotions in the body’s heart rhythms. This has led to research proving that breathing patterns can affect emotions.
So here’s a technique that you can use whenever you are feeling stressed, anxious, or wanting to think clearly. This technique is explained in more detail in this article.
Step 1) Focus your attention in the area of the heart.
Step 2) Imagine your breath is flowing in and out of your heart or chest
area, breathing a little slower and deeper than usual.
Suggestion: Inhale to the count of 5, exhale to the count of 5 (or whatever rhythm is comfortable).
After reading the steps, stop for a moment and genuinely try it for a full minute. Heart-Focused Breathing is an on-the-go technique, meaning you don’t have to stop what you’re doing and close your eyes to do it. Practice doing it with your eyes open! Also, try doing Heart-Focused Breathing at different times during the day, or when someone else is talking, and see what you notice.
Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L., Maddox,T., Cheng, E., Creswell, P., Witt, W., Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality, 2012. Health Psychology. Link here.
Yerkes R., Dodson J., The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. 1908. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology. Link here.
Harmelink, A., Pilot Study of the Effects of Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback on Perceived Stress, Perceived Coping Ability, and Resilience in Accelerated Baccalaureate Nursing Students. 2016. South Dakota University. Link here.
Porges, S. The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. 2017. W. W. Norton & Company. Link here.
Stoic Leadership Lessons from Marcus Aurelius. Link here.