Stress is a big part of our lives. A vast majority of people experience high levels of stress (and consequent anxiety) at some point. For many, their stress may stem from work, school, or even their home life.
We often find ourselves in a sort of fight-or-flight response mode, incomparable to that of a life-threatening situation, of course. However, our body recognizes that we are faced with adversity, and similarly, changes gears in order to “survive.”
Over the years, the notion that being stressed is simply no good and should just be avoided has become a consensus among many. The idea that stress is a weakness has polluted our youthful minds and made them fragile.
Here’s something you don’t hear every day: stress is your best friend—no really. You see, the problem is that so many of us get overwhelmed from the slightest bit of stress because of how we view the idea of stress.
But what if you worked to reconstruct your idea of stress? With positive reappraisal, we can eliminate any physiological harm that would otherwise come with stress. According to the National Library of Medicine, a study conducted in 2012 to understand the correlation between health and stress found that individuals who believed that stress affects their health and reported high levels of stress had an increased risk of premature death by 43 per cent.
They concluded that perception of stress makes all the difference. It’s important to note that we may actually experience very little stress but still believe it to be significant and have a great impact on our health. And so, from now on, I want you to carefully consider what it really means when you are “stressed out” (Twenty One Pilots anyone?).
We also begin to benefit greatly from stress enhancing our performance, where we’re better able to focus, get things done, and become resilient, allowing us to get better at dealing with adversity over time, as opposed to constantly paralyzing ourselves mentally and physically.
Another study in 2012 by Jeremy Jamieson, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, found that reappraising stress improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses that come with stress. They found that a positive perception correlated with lower TPR (Total Peripheral Resistance), also known as vascular resistance, or the resistance that must be overcome to push blood through the circulatory system and create flow. Positively reappraising stress also led to greater cardiac output (CO), the amount of blood pumped by the heart per minute, as well as decreased attentional bias when performing the Stroop task, a psychological demonstration of one’s reaction time used to illustrate the nature of automatic processing versus conscious visual control.
This is a turning point, and a crucial one at that: we’re effectively improving our physical and mental health every time we embrace stress. But what about performance? Doesn’t stress, and the anxiety that comes with it, hinder our ability to do well with our studies?
In 2010, before he went on to research the physiological effects of reappraising stress, Jeremy Jamieson also gathered together college students preparing for their Graduate Record Exam and split them into two groups (a control group and an experimental group). Members in the experimental group were told about the positives of stress, while the control group were left to their own devices. Not only did members from the experimental group outperform those in the control group in the practice test, they also achieved higher scores on the GRE months later.
They were found to have had higher levels of stress but reported feeling much less anxious about the exam.
Gregory Walton, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, further solidified this idea through mindset intervention with regards to social anxiety and stress in 2011. Over a three-year observation period, he found the intervention boosted academic performance and raised African American students’ GPA relative to multiple control groups, cutting in half the minority achievement gap, as well as improved self-reported physical health and general happiness.
Here’s a fun fact: the more stressed you are, the better you are at dealing with it. The same study that found a correlation between mortality and negative perception of stress also noted that resilient individuals—those who have experienced a decent amount of stress in the past—often don’t even think about recent stress affecting their health, even when dealing with high amounts of it.
So, what should we take away from all of this? There’s no denying that a good way to effectively deal with stress is by actively changing your mindset. We always feel the need to put ourselves down when under pressure because it’s just so much easier to blame ourselves and circumstance, and because we can’t help but expect everything to be pleasant and easy.
The reality is that our negative—indeed subjective—sense of stress can simply be overcome by a new and positive perspective. You’re at your best when you’re stressed.
So, I want you to keep in mind the next time you’re writing a midterm or working on a paper that you’re stressed about: let the stress drive you to succeed.