Why changing how you think about stress could help you be less affected by it
Earlier this year my sister and I hiked up a mountain near Queenstown, New Zealand (well, she was hiking up a mountain, I was dragging my way up a steep hill).
As we walked, I told myself "if I can make it up this hill, and then the next one, this year will be different".
I told myself that this year I would put into practice all those stress management tools I've read and written about. I was certain I would instill good habits, practise self-control and sail through life's challenges.
Fast forward a few weeks, and already my vision of a more relaxed year is fading and the telltale signs of stress are kicking in.
But I've recently discovered that stress is more complicated than many of us realise, and how we think about it can change how it affects us.
Do you feel like you have a lot of stress in your life?
Much of the scientific research into stress focuses on the negative effect it can have on our health and wellbeing.
It can affect our ability to concentrate, to digest properly and to process emotions. It's been linked to sleep problems and mental health issues.
One study by Kate Leger from the University of California suggests even small daily stress can increase our risk of cardiovascular disease, anxiety and chronic pain.
Her work found those who were unable to let go of negative emotions caused by stress tended to experience more health problems.
That sounds bad.
What if the problem is how you think about stress?
But that's not the only way to think about stress. What if our beliefs about stress are more important than the stress itself? And that if you don't see stress as a bad thing, it may not have a negative effect at all.
Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer from Stanford University who challenges us to rethink how we view stress.
She says our stress response is based on our ability to cope with whatever life throws your way.
When it comes to our relationship with stress, many of us feel helpless and that we can't do anything to reduce it, wherever we might find it — the workplace, relationships or families.
Dr McGonigal argues by changing our perception that "stress is bad for you", we can change how we respond and react to stress. And the impact it has on us.
A large study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison bears this out.
Researchers asked almost 29,000 people to rate their levels of stress as well as how much they believed this stress influenced their health.
Fast forward eight years, and researchers found people who had reported high stress and who believed that the stress had a large impact on their health had a massive 43 per cent increased risk of death.
In her talk, Dr McGonigal describes how when she put people in a stressful situation, yet told them the stress response wasn't harmful, but rather that symptoms such as heart beating strongly meant more oxygen was being pumped around the body, the participants didn't feel as stressed.
So how can you change how you think about stress?
OK, so how do we reframe our perception of stress on a day-to-day basis?
Australian behaviour change expert Alison Earl is the author of Tripowerment: The Why, the Will, and the Way of Breakthrough Change and a guest lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health.
She suggests the ROAR approach to change our response to stress.
Recognise what's happening in your body when you feel stressed (think of physical sensations of stress as energy to be harnessed.)
Owning the opportunity to intervene and influence your response
Activate the energy: "What can you do right now to use this energy in the service of your goals?"
Recharge and reward. This is so important after a period of high stress to rebuild your resilience.
ROAR is designed to help shift your belief that "stress is bad" to "stress is enhancing".
The approach is based on a mindset intervention conducted with over 230 employees in a major US company.
Three weeks later, those who had gone through the training showed a shift in stress mindset (from harmful to helpful), reporting less anxiety and depression and better physical health.
Ms Earl says the benefits were maintained up to six weeks later from this one intervention.
"It's amazing that this simple shift cannot only increase performance but also shift the physiological response in the body, from harmful to helpful," she says.
Understanding how you view stress
Her focus on mindset and behaviour change was born out of her own personal experience.
"For four years, while living a fast-paced, high-pressure life in New York, I experienced the dark side of stress," she says.
After several specialist appointments (and a scary colonoscopy), she was diagnosed with proctitis, which is inflammation of the lining of the rectum.
"Stress had quite literally started attacking my body. However, with mindset interventions, my relationship shifted and I haven't experienced a symptom in over three years (and stress certainly didn't go away)," she says.
She believes it's empowering to recognise that we play a role in how we view stress.
Focus on yourself
First and foremost, start with yourself.
"Often we focus on the external factors that cause or contribute to stress, such as impossible deadlines or difficult bosses," she says. "However, fixating on this can cause us to feel hopeless and weighed down by stress."
And listen to your own language.
"If you're saying things like feeling 'suffocated', or 'weighed down' by things that are 'happening to you', then there is a good chance you've handed your power over to something outside of yourself," she says.
"Take it back. Mindset is incredibly powerful and is 100 per cent within the individual's control."
First, RECOGNISE your own triggers that send you into a stress negative or stress positive state.
Then RECONCILE your role in creating the outcome you want and, from that place of self-awareness, make a choice to RESPOND to stress in a way that's helpful rather than harmful to yourself and others.
"I like to call this RESPONSE-ABILITY," Ms Earl said.
She is clear, though, that it's still important to address the sources of your stress.
She said she wasn't suggesting that people shouldn't try and address the sources of their stress.
"But first take responsibility for your own experience and build your resilience to high stress," she said.
Here's how you can apply all this
Think about what's your role in solutions.
Grab a pen and jot down answers to these questions:
When it comes to stress, what is in your control that you can influence and act on?What's the one action you can take right now to turn your perception of stress from negative to positive?How are others around you feeling? (Often we feel stress because we feel isolated — so utilise the power of connection)And how can you embed the practice of reframing stress into your daily life?
Remember, it's OK not to feel OK all of the time. So be kind to yourself.
Some of us have mountains to climb (for others, it's just a steep hill).
Sophie Scott is the ABC's medical reporter and writes about positive psychology.