National Stress Awareness Day | How to Use Stress to Enhance Performance and Well-Being
A Google search of the word ‘Stress’ brought up the images above. Not one of those pictures look enjoyable, do they?
As a society, we’ve come to associate stress with negative feelings – anxiety, headaches, sometimes even depression. However, stress – as it relates to humans – is a relatively new phenomenon. Until the 1930s, stress was strictly a measure of how much force could be applied to materials or objects. It wasn’t until after an endocrinologist named Hans Selye completed a series of stress-related experiments on rats that the term came to be associated with psychological suffering.
Today, the mere mention of the word makes some people anxious. Every year, National Stress Awareness Day is observed on the first Wednesday of November to bring awareness to stress, the dangers of stress, and to let those who are feeling overwhelmingly stressed know they are not alone.
How did stress develop such a bad rep? And is it well-earned?
Different Types of Stress
When most people hear the word ‘stress’ they typically think of emotional or mentally straining circumstances, and it seems as though Google would agree. But did you know that there are different kinds of stress? It’s true, and some stress is necessary, even good for you.
It is generally believed that humans experience two types of stress: Distress and eustress.
This is the stress we’re all very familiar with. This type of stress has been linked to myriad health problems including high blood pressure, headaches, depression, and by some accounts, even death. Distress can also encourage unhealthy activities such as excessive drinking, smoking, or drug use to help cope. Habitual engagement in these activities can lead to a plethora of other health problems.
Instead of enhancing performance, distress typically causes people to perform more poorly at tasks – be it an exam or engaging with loved ones – than they normally would.
This is the type of stress we rarely hear about – the good stress. Did you even know there was such a thing?
Eustress is not only beneficial for your psychological well-being, but also can improve your performance.
Studies done on students taking an exam showed that those who were instructed to view stress as positive and a performance-enhancer were more likely to perform better on the exam than counterparts who were instructed to view stress as a bad thing.
Stress can not only be good for you, but also is necessary to lead a healthy, happy life. In her book, The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal, PhD, an award-winning teacher and psychologist at Stanford University, posits that if people removed all their sources of stress, their lives would cease to have much meaning.
Instead of focusing on removing stress, Dr. McGonigal encourages people to focus on increasing eustress. She suggests making two lists: One listing things that bring you stress and the other listing things that mean the most to you. Many people are surprised by how correlated the two lists are.
How Bad is the ‘Bad’ Stress?
According to a survey conducted by the American Institute of Stress (AIS), nearly 80% of American workers suffer from high levels of stress in their job. In fact, despite a steady decrease in workplace accidents and deaths, stress-related ailments seem to be on the rise.
This rise in workplace stress is often attributed to our increasingly digital lives, which means that the ‘office’ can be anywhere you are. It has become such a problem that France even enacted a law giving workers the right to ‘disconnect’ after work hours. French legislator Benoit Hamon explained the rationale for the law as follows:
“[Employees] leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash – like a dog.”
According to a recent book by Jeffrey Pfeffer, Dying for a Paycheck, almost half of the Americans who suffer from high stress find it so debilitating that they need help. Pfeffer postulates that as many as 120,000 deaths per year could be the result of work-related stress.
In response, many employers have taken a keener interest in the mental health of their employees, instituting wellness programs and improving resources for those struggling with anxiety and stress. Despite this progress, stress in the workplace still remains one of the biggest health and safety concerns for Americans.
Can You ‘Choose’ the Right Stress?
Leading mental health professionals believe that changing perceptions of stress can help turn distress into eustress in those areas where some control over the outcome is within the individual’s grasp. For example, when taking an exam or competing for a promotion, refocusing the way you feel about stress from negative to positive can actually enhance performance and give you an edge.
Conclusions from a study in 2012 based on the 1998 National Health Interview Survey, found the following:
“[The participants] who both reported high stress and believed it was harming their health had a 43% higher risk of premature death. Those who reported high stress but did not believe it was hurting them were less likely to die early than those who reported little stress.”
While stress is unavoidable, it seems that focusing on stress as a positive rather than negative can not only lead to better performance results, but also better health.
But don’t stress about it.