Stress is Bad, Right?

The Downward Cycle of Stress

The downward spiral of stress seems inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be. Two key elements of our stress response at play are how we view the challenging events in our lives and our somatic response to them. Most of us view stress with a threat mindset, the beliefs that stress damages our health and that our somatic response is maladaptive.

A considerable problem with the threat mindset is that believing stress harms our body only compounds it. Research shows that negative beliefs about stress significantly increase the likelihood of physical suffering from it.

The Growth Mindset

On the other hand, others thrive in the face of life’s challenges because they perceive stress and the problems that inevitably occur as opportunities for growth. Instead of seeing stress as toxic, they understand that stress is alerting them to a challenge.

Rather than viewing stress as harmful to them, those who adopt the growth mindset believe that stress is beneficial to them. In other words, experiencing stress helps them rise to the challenge of protecting or accomplishing what is important to them.

These are the three core beliefs of the growth mindset of stress:

  • Stress can enhance the response to challenges

  • Stress can improve health

  • Stress can foster learning and growth

When we reframe our racing heart, muscle tension, and feelings of stress as something deserving of gratitude, we remind ourselves, “My body is helping me get through this challenge. I can handle this.”

Research has demonstrated that viewing our stress response as helpful protects us from its damaging effects. It prompts us to use our stress to engage our problems to solve them. This allows us to move above and beyond the stressful episode instead of remaining stuck in the symptoms it creates.

1. Stress Boosts Brainpower

Studies have shown that low-level stressors stimulate the production of brain chemicals called neurotrophins and strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain.

Daniela Kaufer is an associate professor at UC Berkeley who studies the biology of stress, examining at the molecular level how the brain responds to anxiety and traumatic events. Her research shows that moderate, short-lived stress can improve alertness and performance and boost memory.

She measured the impact of stress by studying the effects of stress on rats, focusing specifically on the growth of stem cells in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is key to the stress response, as well as being very important for learning and memory.

The study she conducted found that exposing rats to moderate stress for a short time—immobilization for a few hours—stimulated stem cell growth, and those cells went on to form neurons or brain cells. A couple of weeks later, tests showed improvements in the rats’ learning and memory.

However, when the animals were exposed to chronic or intense stress—being immobilized for days at a time, or being immobilized and then being subjected to the smell of a predator—stem cell growth was suppressed, resulting in the generation of fewer brain cells.

The presumption is that these findings, that manageable amounts of stress boosts brainpower, can be extrapolated to people and that minimal exposure improves alertness, performance, and memory as well.

2. Stress Increases Resiliency

A large body of research on the science of resilience has shown that learning to deal with stressful situations can make future ones easier to manage.

It’s the idea behind Navy SEAL training, Dr. Richard Shelton, MD, vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alabama, Birmingham says, although you can certainly benefit from less extreme experiences as well. “Repeated exposure to stressful events gives [SEALs] the chance to develop both a physical and psychological sense of control, so when they’re in actual combat they don’t just shut down.”

It’s a no-brainer that going through a tough situation builds resiliency. Generally, when people experience difficulty for the first time, they think it’s the worst situation and feel they will crumble because they don’t know how to cope. But as they confront different situations and overcome various problems, they become more adept at dealing with similar incidents in the future and feel a greater sense of mastery and control.

3. Stress Motivates Success

Good stress, known in the scientific community as eustress, is often just the thing you need to get the job done. “Think about a deadline: It’s staring you in the face, and it’s going to stimulate your behavior to manage the situation effectively, rapidly, and more productively,” says Dr. Shelton.

The key, he says, is “viewing stressful situations as a challenge that you can meet, rather than an overwhelming, unpassable roadblock.”

Eustress can also help you enter a state of “flow,” a heightened sense of awareness and complete absorption into an activity, according to research from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow can be achieved in the workplace, in sports, or in a creative endeavor (such as playing a musical instrument), and Csikszentmihalyi argues that it’s driven largely by pressure to succeed.

What Promotes Good Stress?

The critical distinction between “positive stress” and “negative stress” seems to be the attitude. If your attitude is positive—a sense of self-confidence that you can make it through a rough period despite the stress—chances are greater that you will have a healthy response than if you perceive stress as foreboding a calamity.

Another powerful factor is social support. Having friends and family you can turn to during a stressful period will enhance your ability to handle that stress. While most of us know intuitively that social support buffers stress, now we’re beginning to understand it biologically as well.

Researchers have identified a hormone called oxytocin that reduces the stress response. According to psychologist Kelly McGonigal, oxytocin release is enhanced by social contact and support.

And finally, a third way to help you through the stress is physical exercise. The evidence is in animal studies. Rodents that were allowed to run more were shown to be more likely to create new brain cells in their stress response than were their sedentary peers. Similarly, active people respond better when stress presents itself than do inactive people.

So when your client is feeling stressed during the clinical session, don’t get stressed out yourself; take those lemons and make a delicious cup of lemonade!