Thinking Stress Is Bad for You Actually Makes Stress Bad for You

A few months ago, I saw the documentary Stress: Portrait of a Killer.

As you can tell from the name, it’s not a film that has a lot of good things to say about stress. It goes into the very serious effects chronic stress has on the brain and the body.

But stress isn’t all bad – there’s an evolutionary reason we get stressed out, after all. Under the right conditions, a moderate amount of stress can keep you alert and on top of your game.

Like many things in life, stress has upsides and downsides. Whether we focus more on the former of the latter depends on what we tend to believe about stress. After I watched Portrait of a Killer, for example, you can bet I was more attuned to all the things in my life that might be producing negative stress.

Which is helpful to an extent. Understanding the toll consistently high levels of stress can take on your health is important for cutting unnecessarily stressful activities out of your life and for seeking out activities that counteract stress.

Past a point, however, being attentive to the downsides of stress actually makes stress worse for you. Thinking of stress as generally a bad thing tends to really make it a bad thing, and thinking of it as generally a good thing will lead you to respond to stress in a better way. In other words, stress can be bad, but getting stressed out about stress can be worse!

Most people think of stress as either more enhancing or more debilitating. That is, they think being somewhat stressed improves their performance overall or gets in their way.

A few years ago, a new set of studies led by researchers from Yale and Harvard came out that suggested people’s stress mindset plays an important role in how they actually react to stress. In particular, people who think of stress as enhancing rather than debilitating had their cortisol levels increase less in response to a stressful task and also asked for more feedback on their performance.

That’s good news for people who already think of stress as an enhancer, but there’s also good news for people who think of stress as all bad: the researchers found that people’s stress mindset is pretty malleable. In fact, just by watching a three-minute film framing stress as enhancing rather than debilitating, people were able to approach a subsequent stressor with a more positive mindset.

This year, a couple new studies have added to these findings, reaffirming the idea that focusing on the performance-enhancing effects of stress changes your stress response for the better.

First, a paper published this month showed that students with more negative beliefs about stress experienced more somatic symptoms (headaches, tension, fatigue, etc.) during a stressful end-of-semester exam period.

Second, research published in March found that people with a more positive view of stress experience a stressful math task as more challenging but not more threatening. Together, these two results suggest that thinking of stress as bad is associated with experiencing more negative stress symptoms and that thinking of stress as good is associated with being more aware of potential gains from stressful situations.

The takeaway from all this is that while it’s still important to control how much stress is in your life, you shouldn’t aim for the impossible goal of eliminating stress entirely. Rather, the more you can see stress as something that helps keep you firing on all cylinders, the more stress really will help you instead of hurt you.

Image: Knight