How is your relationship with stress? We’re sure it’s similar to the majority of us who naturally want to avoid it and we often do by taking the path of least resistance. Deal with it poorly or don’t deal with it at all and come out the other side feeling no better about it. But what if our default approach to handling stress has been setting us up for failure all along?
At Accountancy Options we explored the concept of stress and why taking control of your approach to it and the way you perceive it could be the key to a better work-life.
Back to basics: What is Stress?
Cortisol is the main stress hormone of our body, controlling our mood, motivation and our fear. Its release is controlled by the adrenal gland, and plays a vital role in a number of functions that our bodies perform. Like keeping inflammation down or boosting our energy so we can handle stress and restore balance after it has passed.
The pituitary and hypothalamus gland in our brains sense if our blood contains the right level of cortisol and signal for the adrenal gland to make adjustments accordingly, by releasing the right amount needed. Your needs will always differ from day to day, on a high-stress day, for example, cortisol production will be high and can even alter or shut down functions like digestive or reproductive systems, or our immune system, as they might get in the way while we navigate through a stressful event. Therefore, staying in a high-stress situation long term can be dangerous as it can derail some of the most important functions our bodies perform.
Most of what we know about stress in dominant dialogues revolves around its negative impact on our health. How often do we hear facts about stress increasing the risk of major health problems like diabetes, heart disease and causing heart attacks, migraines/headaches, depression and so on. It’s not surprising that we combat these warnings by avoiding stress as much as we can and always seem to approach it with caution.
Mindset change: What are the experts saying?
Kelly McGonigal PhD, research psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University says that trying to avoid stress is ‘fundamentally counterproductive.’ Through her extensive research on the matter, she warns that thinking you’ll go through stressful circumstances and hope to come out the other side unscathed and unchanged is the wrong way to go about it. It’s time to be more resilient and proactive about how we think about and approach stress.
Psychologist Salvatore Maddi, first described this view of resilience when it comes to stress after founding Hardiness Research Lab at the University of California Irvine. His research looked specifically at people who thrive under stress versus those who are defeated by it and he concluded that those who thrive, view stress as inevitable. Rather than trying to avoid it, they look for ways to engage with it, adapt to it, and learn from it. Shifting their perceptions from a negative into a positive growth opportunity. McGonigal believes we need to ‘have the courage to grow from stress,’ and that in fact we are built to do exactly this.
This should make you feel a lot better about stress the next time it comes for you, that we as humans already have the ability to learn from stress because it is built into the basic biology of our stress response.
For several hours after you have a strong stress response, the brain releases DHEA and nerve growth factor, both of which help the brain learn from the experience.
McGonical points out that stress leaves an imprint on the brain which is what prepares people to handle similar stress the next time they encounter it. Psychologists call this process of learning and growing from a difficult experience ‘stress inoculation,’ where the brain gives our bodies what some call a ‘vaccine against stress.’
Alia Crum, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, is aligned with McGonigals conclusions, stating:
“Our fight-or-flight response was designed to keep us safe and help us meet the demands we face every day.”
Through her research, Crum has also found that ‘viewing stress as helpful rather than harmful is associated with better health, greater emotional well-being, increased life satisfaction, and improved work productivity.’
“Stress helps make people stronger, faster, more energetic, and even kinder.”
– Alia Crum
Firdaus Dhabhar, professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, conducted research on how stress can strengthen or suppress immune function. He concluded that stress can actually bolster the immune system. Stating that the type of immune response that could help you fight a cold or infection is enhanced by short-term stress.
What does this all mean?
We certainly aren’t saying go and put yourself out there into every stressful situation you can find, but it is worth noting the power of perception here and how a healthier relationship with stress can set you on a far more productive path. We need to find comfort in the fact that we can trust our bodies and brains to get us through. We also need to ensure we are in the right mindset to allow the process to take its true course.
“We don’t usually think of the stress response as helpful…But in many ways it’s your best ally during difficult challenges.”
Next time something challenging arises, take the opportunity to approach it differently. If we look at everyday stress as a positive force, we can protect ourselves from some of its damage and use it to learn, grow, and thrive.
Mike Sholars, Work Culture: Alive at Work: To grow and thrive, embrace stress.
Kelly McGonigal PhD, research psychologist, lecturer at Stanford University – How to be Good at Stress
Ginny Graves, Stress Can Make You Stronger And Happier, Says Science
Natasha Jordan, Senior Recruitment Consultant, Accountancy Options
Natasha is a hands-on recruiter specialising in accounting and finance support. With ten years of experience across Melbourne and the U.K, Natasha has supported hundreds of people throughout the hiring process. A compassionate recruiter, she always goes the extra mile to support her team, her candidates and her clients.