Redefining stress for greater connectivity, certainty and control
April is stress awareness month. It has been running since 1992, with its aim to increase awareness of the causes and cures for our modern-day stress epidemic. This year’s theme is aimed at supporting people to regain connectivity, certainty and control in what has been a challenging 12 months for many. According to data published by the Stress Management Society, 65% of people have (unsurprisingly) experienced more stress than normal during the pandemic. However, the impact that this stress will have had on people will vary considerably from person to person.
The Stress Paradox
We are often told that stress is bad for us. Indeed, even before the pandemic, when people were asked what impact experiencing a lot of stress over a 12-month period would have on their health, more than 95% of people agreed that it would take a negative toll on their physical and mental health. It might be reassuring to learn, albeit somewhat paradoxically, that there is research to back up their beliefs, namely that experiencing a lot of stress over 12-months can be detrimental to health. While this might not bode well for those who have experienced more stress during the pandemic, it is worth noting that the exact same data simultaneously painted a more optimistic picture of the impact that experiencing lots of stress can have on our health – stress (in the right circumstances) can actually be enhancing.
The problem with the ‘stress is bad’ narrative, is that it doesn’t tell the whole story. We should be wary of stories that paint things in black and white, as they ignore the rich shades of grey that lie in-between. In the studies conducted in the US and UK, the researchers found that, while stress did indeed have a negative impact on those who experienced a lot of it, there was a caveat. It only tended to have a negative effect if an individual believed that the stress that they were experiencing was having a negative impact on their health.
Unpacking the stress paradox
The reason that stress can be either good or bad is a direct result of our own perception and the impact that this perception has on our internal biology. When we perceive stress as a threat rather than a challenge, we prime our body to fight or to flee (or possibly freeze) in a way that is more taxing on our mind and body compared to when we perceive something as a challenge that can be overcome. While defining something as a threat or a challenge may seem like semantics, the body reacts more resiliently to the latter.
Dr Alia Crum, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford, has been investigating how our mindset around stress impacts our health and performance for over a decade. Her research has paved the way for many of us to revaluate the way in which we view stress. In one study published in 2017, she noted that when “stress was evaluated as a challenge, a stress-is-enhancing mindset produced sharper increases in positive affect, heightened attentional bias towards positive stimuli, and greater cognitive flexibility, whereas a stress-is-debilitating mindset produced worse cognitive and affective outcomes.” Similar studies have shown that we appear to produce a healthy dose of cortisol when we feel challenged but produce excessive (and often detrimental) amounts of cortisol when we feel threatened. Excessive cortisol can negatively impact our ability to deal resiliently and pro-actively with stress, as our cognitive functions become overwhelmed.
Chronic negative stress, the kind of stress which we view as a threat, can also cause untold harm to our body if left unchecked for prolonged periods. Our threat response was only ever designed to be used in short bursts of up to 30-minutes, to escape an imminent threat to survival. When a zebra is chased by a lion, it either has its intestines ripped out from under it, as it tries in vain to escape, or it successfully outruns the lion and returns to graze peacefully with not a care in the world. Where humans appear to go wrong, compared to other mammals on the planet, is two-fold. Firstly, the vast majority of the threats that humans perceive today, do not actually pose a threat to our long-term survival. We would very much benefit from applying Dr Alia Crum’s research and interpret those threats, not as threats but as challenges that can be overcome (and potentially even help us grow).
Secondly, unlike a zebra who will merrily go back to grazing once a threat has passed, as humans, we have a tendency to replay the stressful event in our minds over and over again or take aversive action, such as drinking alcohol or sugary foods, to avoid those stressful thoughts. We know from research that excessive rumination (replaying negative thoughts over and over in the mind) is correlated with a significantly increased risk of mental ill-health, including anxiety and depression. While some rumination can be adaptive and help us to process thoughts and feelings, excessive rumination is not. The key is to figure out if your thought patterns are leading to new insights or simply fuelling the fire of worry and anxiety.
Regaining connectivity, certainty and control
Covid-19 has resulted in many of us feeling less connected, more uncertain and with a real sense of loss of autonomy over things we most likely took for granted prior to the pandemic. Yet, there are things we can each do to bolster our sense of connection, certainty and control.
It’s safe to say that most people have likely relished not having to be crammed into a packed train carriage like a tin of sardines on their morning commute and welcomed the relief of not having to breathe into someone else’s armpit while attempting to respond to a work email on their commute home. However, not being able to socialise with friends, family and colleagues in the same way that we could before the pandemic will have taken a toll on our social connectivity, and with it on our mental health.
It won’t come as a huge surprise to learn that humans crave human connection. Even introverts benefit from feeling connected. Not feeling sufficiently connected to other human beings increases our levels of stress. Whereas when we feel connected (and supported) it can alleviate the negative pressures we might otherwise experience. Covid-19 has significantly intruded upon how we might typically connect with or seek support from others. Gone are the water-cooler moments in the office, the brief chit-chats before a meeting, coffee mornings, social outings, and our ability to easily reach out to someone and ask for help. What this means in practice is that we may need to work a little harder to successfully foster sufficient connectivity.
While social interaction is a natural phenomenon in a physical office environment, remote working requires us to create new opportunities for connection, which might feel a little artificial at first. While technology has been much maligned in recent years, it does provide a platform from which to connect in a meaningful way with others. It’s not so much the technology itself but how we use it. Scrolling aimlessly through your social media feed is likely to leave you feeling more isolated and less connected. However, if you choose instead to actively engage in messaging friends, family colleagues, those pro-active actions should help you feel more connected. My top tip would be to increase the depth of your relationships rather than focusing on increasing the breadth of relationships. While there has been much fanfare around virtual quiz nights and cocktail making evenings, they can be quite shallow experiences when it comes to social connection. It’s therefore worth checking in with yourself to see if these help you to feel more or less connected. Essentially, figure out what you need and take steps to fulfil that need in a way that works for you.
Certainty at a time of significant upheaval can prove elusive. There is no doubt that we benefit emotionally by retaining a sense of certainty that things will get better. We also benefit from knowing that our actions produce specific outcomes. Our mental health invariably suffers when we feel there is a mismatch between our expectations and the eventual reality which ensues. With so much change and uncertainty still on the horizon, a positive way to retain our sense of certainty is to build healthy routines which can act as an anchor in the midst of a fairly relentless storm.
The research is unequivocal when it comes to the positive benefits of embedding a daily routine – it produces tangible and immediate results to our sense of certainty and overall wellbeing. Prioritising a good night’s sleep for example, helps to build and strengthen our mental resources. Going for a daily walk and taking time out to catch-up with friends or colleagues on a 1-2-1 basis will help build our resilience. So too will engaging in our character strengths. When we choose to align our actions with our values, and allow those values to guide our actions, it provides us with the certainty that we are staying true to ourselves. If you are looking for inspiration to better understand yourself, I can recommend completing the free VIA Character strengths profile evaluation available online.
All human beings, from a very early age in their development, wish to be self-directed. A lack of autonomy can be a significant source of negative stress – it’s as if our very survival is at stake. Yet, we have the ability to shift where we focus our attention. And thereby whether we feel in control. It can be extraordinarily easy to rest our focus on those things that we can do very little about, which can leave us feeling anxious and helpless. Yet, within our sphere of influence there is much that we can control. As discussed earlier, we can take charge of our daily routine and brave setting sustainable boundaries for ourselves.
If you find it difficult to focus on the right things, it can be helpful to write some of the main challenges you are wrestling with down on a piece of paper. Once in plain sight, it’s a little easier to identify the challenges that you can actively do something about. When working through the list in front of you, be sure to cross out the things that you have no ability to influence. While it may be tempting to expend energy worrying about certain things, if you can’t do anything to influence their outcome, it will be wasted energy - energy which you would be far better channelling into something pro-active. Once you have a list of the things you can influence, write down some tangible actions you can take. That should help you feel more in control.
Finally, thinking back to the Stress Paradox, it is important to remember that emotions are only ever your brain’s best guess of how you should be feeling right now, based on your previous experiences. Emotions help direct our attention to what is deemed most important in the moment. As Harvard psychologist Susan David points out, emotions are data not directives. They are there to alert you to what may pose a threat. We have the capacity to re-evaluate the data and come to a different conclusion, thereby reappraising any potential threat as a challenge.
As I mentioned in a previous post on the same topic, much of the time we create our own fears. Fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, fear of not being accepted, fear of simply not being enough. Whether those fears are warranted or not would probably require an entire book. The short answer, however, is most likely to be that those thoughts are not warranted. In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy you would be asked to look for the evidence to dispute your current debilitating way of thinking, so perhaps that is a good place to start…
Crum AJ, Salovey P, Achor S. Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2013 Apr;104(4):716-33. doi: 10.1037/a0031201. Epub 2013 Feb 25. PMID: 23437923.
Crum AJ, Akinola M, Martin A, Fath S. The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Anxiety Stress Coping. 2017 Jul;30(4):379-395. doi: 10.1080/10615806.2016.1275585. Epub 2017 Jan 25. PMID: 28120622.
Fredrickson, Barbara L; The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions; Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences vol. 359,1449 (2004): 1367-78. doi:10.1098/rstb.2004.1512