Seeing Stress Differently

By Brittany Dingler '15, PHEIMG_7120

Stress and chaos do not have to compromise our happiness and well-being. In fact, much research in the emerging field of Positive Psychology suggests that changing our perspective of stress allows us to feel the stress differently.

Unfortunately, eliminating stress entirely is pretty unrealistic, but also not entirely helpful.  Yes, high levels of chronic stress can suppress our immune systems—increasing our vulnerability to colds—or, over time, heart disease and cancer. However, most people have stressful responsibilities in their lives but aren’t getting sick from them. In other words, the key to staying healthy and productive may be in the realization that workload and illness is not a one-to-one correlation. For example, if we were to observe a large group of individuals with a heavy workload, strict deadlines, and a host of responsibilities (say, college students?), there would be apparent reactions to stress. Some individuals shuffle around with blood-shot eyes, hunched shoulders, ready to attack, while others bounce along, with wide eyes and straight backs, ready to tackle the next challenge. The answer to this variance appears to be in the perception of these challenges. 

To explain, the degree of stress is a product of how we evaluate our experiences:  is this helping me? Is this hurting me? Could this continue to hurt me in the future? The most important question we must ask ourselves is, do I have the resources to deal with this?  If the answer is yes, then overall health, well-being, and even productivity appear to increase as stress deflates to a manageable, even helpful, level.  If the answer is no, then our nervous system recruits a stress cocktail of Norepinephrine and Epinephrine (together, known as Adrenaline) with a Cortisol chaser if we continue to feel unable to surmount the challenge. 

So how can we change our attitude towards stress to stay happy, healthy, and in control? Positive Psychology gurus offer three steps. First, acknowledge the presence of the stress—it’s here, it’s happening, and I’m feeling it in my chest/head/shoulders. Second, determine the cause of the stress—I’m behind in Biology and I have a test next week. Third, and this is key, reevaluate the stress and use it to motivate you—I might want to be a Veterinarian so this next test is an opportunity for me to get closer to vet school so that I can help puppies. Once we train ourselves to see challenges as opportunities for growth, we will be able to make our future and present selves happy. 

This learned happiness, generated by overriding our initial stress response, helps to boost our health and productivity, sparking a cycle of challenge and success.

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