Is Stress on the Naughty or Nice List?

According to the American Institute of Stress, stress has been linked to depression, anxiety, heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, immune disturbances (including increased susceptibility of infections) to name a few heavy hitters. In fact, stress plays a role in aggravating almost every part of the body. Not only that, it’s been shown that moderate to high levels of stress increase mortality rates, according to a research study involving male subjects published in the Journal of Aging Research. Yet, even relatively mild stress can lead to long term disability and an inability to work according to epidemiological studies. Needless to say, stress is particularly bad for you…. or, is the thought of stress being bad what’s really bad for you?

Thinking about how bad stress is for you is called the “stress-is-debilitating” mindset. What if instead, you thought about how helpful and empowering stress is for you? WHAT?! Yeah, what if all the negative thoughts you had about stress is what’s actually stressing you out, and if you just flipped it on its head and started thinking about how stress facilitated learning and growth you may not experience the negative effects typically associated with stress. This is what’s called the “stress-is-enhancing” mindset. Scientists out of Yale conducted a study that identified the stress mindsets of nearly 400 employees at an international financial institution. What they found was that the employees who had the “stress-is-enhancing” mindset reported having better health, greater life satisfaction, and superior work performancecompared to those of the “stress-is-debilitating” mindset. Moreover, the “stress-is-enhancing” thinkers were also more likely to have optimal levels of cortisol. The good news is, if you’re a stress is killing me kind of thinker, you can shift it, and you may find that your wellbeing and work performance may improve in a relatively short period of time. In the study, it happened in a span of a week with a 3 min daily video intervention telling participants how helpful stress was to them.

Now, this doesn’t mean that changing your mindset will make up for the fact that you have more responsibilities than time in the day. Nor will erase the deficit caused by your go, go, go schedule leading you to get 5 hours of a sleep a night—it won’t. However, if you aren’t thinking about the stress that the above behavior causes you or about how bad it is for your health you might not be worse for the wear. Now, don’t get me wrong I’m not condoning an abandonment of positive lifestyle behaviors. But I do want to highlight that our thoughts have powerful physiological and psychological effects. In one of my favorite TED Talks (linked below) by Kelly McGonigal,a health psychologist out of Stanford, talks about how to make stress your friend and highlights some studies that may leave you thinking differently about stress. I don’t want to spoil the talk for you, but I’ll offer you this teaser. In a US study involving 30,000 people, it was discovered that people who had a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% increase risk of dying, but ONLY if they believed stress was harmful to their health. Conversely, people with a lot of stress who did NOT believe it was harmful were at the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study—even those with mild stress.

The bottom line is our thoughts are very powerful and impact our physiology and psychology. So, the next time you find you’re having a negative thought, memory, or stressing out about being stressed consider how you might shift your thinking. As a shift to the positive might yield better health, a better outlook on life, and help you in achieving your goals. To help with some of that positive thinking, I’ve got a few coaching questions for you below to ponder.

Coaching Corner

  • What’s good about your health?

  • How can stress empower you to achieve your goals?

  • When has a time of stress helped you achieve something or overcome a challenge in your life?