The Evolving Science Of Stress: How To Tap Into The Upside Of Stress While Avoiding Its Downside

The Evolving Science Of Stress: How To Tap Into The Upside Of Stress While Avoiding Its Downside

April is Stress Awareness Month, when there will be a flurry of articles about managing stress. That is a good thing, up to a point. But many of these articles will come with the inference that stress is inherently bad. A one-sided view of stress as a negative force to be “managed” is a missed opportunity to learn how to leverage its real upside.

The old science of stress

We owe much of our current understanding (and misunderstanding) of stress to the pioneering endocrinologist Hans Selye. His 1946 paper on “General Adaptation Syndrome” described three stages the body goes through when it is under prolonged stress: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.

GAS was an important contribution in that it identified certain common patterns of how we respond to various stressors, whether those be disease, mental stress, or a challenging situation. But GAS also contributed to our conception of stress as largely negative. It turns out that the final phase of exhaustion—which we now frequently refer to as burnout—is not inevitable. Our bodies and minds can adapt quite positively to short-term stress. It is only when stress is prolonged and without relief that it becomes chronic.

Interestingly, Selye later regretted not introducing a more nuanced way of talking about stress. He advocated for distinguishing between positive eustress and negative distress. He described stress as “the salt of life” and pointed out that the opposite of stress is death.

Embracing the upside of stress

We all know that a surge in adrenaline can provide us with increased physical strength and sharpened mental awareness. And you can view exercise (whether it is yoga or lifting weights) as voluntarily applying stress to the body to make it stronger. Through her popular Ted Talk and her book, The Upside of Stress, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, has been at the forefront of an effort to reveal how stress, under the right circumstances, can give us fuel and lead to growth.

McGonigal says that the mindset we bring to stress goes a long way toward determining whether it will have a positive or negative effect. The research points to what she calls three “protective beliefs” about stress:

  1. Viewing your body’s stress response as helpful, not debilitating
  2. Seeing yourself as able to handle, learn, and grow from the stress in your life
  3. Recognizing stress as something that is part of everyone’s life
    What is a positive stress mindset?Shall we tell ourselves that stress is helpful, not bad? Sometimes, yes. Psychologists call this “arousal reappraisal.” Alison Wood Brooks of the Harvard Business School wrote a paper called Get Excited in which she questioned the common belief that the best way to deal with anxiety before something like an important meeting or a public speaking event is to try to calm down. The jitters we feel before a potentially stressful event are automatic and biologically based; we cannot just wish them away. And trying to suppress anxiety is often counterproductive.

    However, research by Brooks and others shows that if we rename or reappraise our anxiety as excitement, we can use our natural stress response as fuel. This reframing helps us adopt a growth mindset that embraces difficult challenges as positive opportunities to learn and improve. I certainly see this with my executive coaching clients. Those who can tap into eustress (positive stress) consistently tell themselves things like, “I perform well under pressure.”

    The idea of a positive stress mindset is consistent with what has come to be known as the Self-Determination Theory. When we see ourselves as competent, autonomous, and engaged in meaningful work, we can tap into the power of intrinsic motivation, a significant buffer against chronic stress. Conversely, stress is more likely to be harmful when it feels against our will, out of our control, and devoid of meaning.

    Stress and recovery

    However, dealing productively with stress is not just a matter of psychology. As any good athlete knows, translating a challenging workout into growth depends on adequate recovery. We invite injury and burnout when we fail to give ourselves time to rest and recover.

    Tips for ensuring recovery during the work week include:

    • Learning to detach mentally through practices such as mindfulness
    • Taking “micro-breaks” as short as 10 minutes throughout the day
    • Getting some exposure to nature or natural light
    • Choosing high-effort recovery activities over passive, low-effort ones

    This last point may seem counterintuitive. We may be tempted to equate recovery with relaxation. But a passive activity like watching TV can be far less effective than something more active. So-called “mastery experiences” that require higher levels of dedication, time, and focus help us not only recover but recharge. Consider taking up a new hobby, learning a new language, or volunteering. The important thing is to switch gears, not to stop altogether.

    Stress and communication

    The potential upside of stress notwithstanding, there is no getting around the fact that chronic stress and burnout are serious issues in the workplace. Here as well, science may point us toward a more productive attitude toward stress.

    Recent research suggests that humans have evolved subtle ways of signaling stress to fellow humans (through actions like nail-biting, fidgeting, and touching of the face or hair) and that such stress signals are likely to evoke support and sympathy from others. Scientists note that humans are a highly cooperative species, so it only makes sense that we would develop ways of signaling distress to others and that our fellow humans would be inclined to respond positively.

    Business leaders must be aware of the signs of unhealthy stress and anxiety in the workplace. And to be ready to provide customized support depending on the situation and employee. Some may need help creating a more manageable workload. Others may need permission to schedule more recovery into their workday. With such small but skillful interventions, leaders can help employees avoid the downside of stress so they can instead turn it into fuel.

    Learning to detach mentally through practices such as mindfulness Taking “micro-breaks” as short as 10 minutes throughout the day