Reinterpreting Stress

We all ‘know’ that stress is bad for us

But this may not always be true

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin studied the relationship between the amount of stress that people experience and their perception of that stress and how those factors affect the risk of dying. The study used data from 28,753 people from the 1998 National Health Interview Survey, a representative cross-section of Americans.

The researchers found that people who reported that stress affects health to some degree or a lot had an 80% and 326% higher risk of reporting poor health, respectively, compared to those who reported that stress had hardly any or no effect on health.  While neither the amount of stress nor the perception of stress independently predicted mortality, the combination lots of stress and the perception that stress is bad increased the risk of dying by 43% over an 8-year period.

Thus, it appears that it’s not the stress as such but our perception of it that affects our health. This research supports the view that our attitude about the events in our lives can matter more than the events themselves. In other words, it’s not what happens to us that matters most – it’s how we think about and respond to what happens to us that matters most.

If our perception of stress affects our health, could we alter our perception of stress to produce more resourceful outcomes in our lives? Research suggests that people with sufficient internal resources can reframe stressful tasks as challenges, while those without enough resources experience regard a stressful situation as a threat. Do effective hockey goalies see stress as good or bad?

Many people regard public speaking as stressful. Researchers devised an experiment in which 50 subjects delivered a five-minute, video-recorded speech that was observed by two evaluators who exhibited negative responses to the speech. Following the speech, each subject was given a test of attentional bias (subjects attempted to identify the color of each word briefly flashed on a screen). Prior to the speech, each subject was randomly assigned to one of three situations. 1) Reappraisal (subjects were told to think that arousal is adaptive and enhances performance). 2) Ignore (subjects were told that the best way to deal with stress is to ignore it). 3) Control (subjects were given no instructions about stress). Subjects in the reappraisal group showed more resourceful physiological responses (increased cardiovascular efficiency and lower resistance to blood flow) than the other groups. Subjects in the reappraisal group also showed less threat-related attention bias than subjects in the other groups. This study suggests that simple reappraisal instructions can elicit resourceful physiological and cognitive improvements under stressful situations.

Keller, A., Kristin Litzelman, Lauren E. Wisk, Torsheika Maddox, Erika Rose Cheng, Paul D. Creswell, and Whitney P. Witt. 2012.  Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology 31: 677-684.

Jamieson, J.P., Nock M.K., & Mendes, W.B. 2012.  Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress.  Journal of Experimental Psychology 141: 417-422.

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