Stress is a normal and integral part of everyday modern life with many manifestations, whether in terms of sleepless nights, racing heartbeats, sweaty palms or “butterflies” in the stomach.
In conventional thinking, stress is something bad that should be avoided if possible. It has been linked to a range of illnesses, including heart disease, obesity, depression, cancer and diabetes. However, a new study finds that stress can be harnessed and put to use if we reframe our thoughts to see it as a challenge, rather than a threat.
Psychologists from the University of Rochester hypothesize that reframing our perception of stress in terms of its functional benefits helps reduce the sense of threat and can make a positive difference to a person’s mental health and general wellbeing.
In their study, published recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, the scientists randomly assigned 339 students from community college to stress reframing or to control conditions just before taking their second in-class exam. Those in the reframing group were trained to perceive stress as a useful tool rather than an obstacle. This training took the form of a standardized reading and writing exercise that highlighted the fact that stress responses have a function in enhancing performance, including the performance on academic tests.
“We use a type of ‘saying is believing’ approach whereby participants learn about the adaptive benefits of stress and they are prompted to write about how it can help them achieve,” says study lead author Professor Jeremy Jamieson, the principal investigator at Rochester’s Social Stress Lab.
The results showed that math students who had been trained to reframe their stress as a positive tool exhibited lower levels of test anxiety on a subsequent exam. In addition, they achieved better scores on the exam than the control group. Trained students reported procrastinating less during the learning process and also set themselves more positive goals – goals focused on achieving good outcomes (such as passing the test) rather than avoiding negative outcomes (like not failing the test).
During the typical stress response, the sympathetic nervous system is aroused and this leads to increased heartbeat and sweaty palms, among other physical changes. These changes prepare a person to respond to perceived danger by fighting or fleeing.
For example, a person who has to undergo a job interview might experience a racing heartbeat and interpret this as nervousness that could sabotage performance. If the person were to understand that the increased heart rate delivers extra oxygen to the brain and will therefore enhance intellectual performance, the stress response becomes an ally and not a foe.
During the experience of stress, several different hormones are released into the blood, some helpful and some not. The research team found that students who were trained to reframe their perception of stress had lower levels of cortisol, a catabolic hormone that breaks down body tissues. On the other hand, they also had higher levels of testosterone, an anabolic hormone that builds body mass and enhances performance and endurance. This hormonal change would help a student to perform at his or her peak.
When asked what advice they had for parents whose children felt stressed or anxious, the team responded that stress is a normal part of life and that parents should help their children learn to cope constructively with stress rather than try to protect them from it. Children have to go out of their comfort zones in order to grow, learn and succeed. They should be taught that struggles are part of life and that they can succeed at doing difficult things.