First, the bad news:
One-third of Americans rate their stress level as extreme, and you might even rank yourself among them if you are a leader with a high level of care and commitment for your people and your work.
It’s also no surprise that prolonged stress is associated with numerous psychological and physical health effects, including premature mortality.
These factors have been known for several decades, yet we have not seen significant decrease in the amount of stress experienced or the number of people suffering from it.
Now, the good news:
A recent and fascinating study sheds some new light on what can be done to reduce the negative impact of stress. Popularized by Kelly McGonigal in her Ted Talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” a study by a team of researchers sought to “examine the relationship among the amount of stress, the perception that stress affects health, and health and mortality outcomes in a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults.”
Using models to test interaction between these variables, the researchers used data from 186 million U.S. adults to produce the first study that examines the relationship between perception of stress and health effects.
The outcome is shocking: “The amount of stress and the perception that stress affects health interacted such that those who reported a lot of stress and that stress impacted their health a lot had a 43% increased risk of premature death.”
A 43% increased risk of premature death – if that doesn’t get your attention, I’m not sure what will.
START LOVING STRESS
The silver lining in this finding is that if you can change your perception of how stress affects your health, you will be significantly better off, even if you still experience stress.
In other words, it might be time to find a way to love the very thing we have been trying to avoid – it might be time to, as McGonigal says, make it your friend. Here are three ways to get started:
Focus on the Benefits of Stress: The most basic definition of stress is a situation where demand on our system exceeds our capacities. As a result, stress is the source of growth – when you push yourself beyond your current limits, you are likely to get two things: discomfort and learning. Most of us can recall a time when we went through a challenging experience that caused quite a bit of discomfort and tension, yet afterwards we said, “I am so glad I went through that.” Thinking of the discomfort and tension as the price for learning and growing as a person and as a leader helps to recast stress in a positive light.
Shift From Chronic to Acute use of Stress: An acute use of stress would be a limited experience of discomfort – for example, giving a speech to an audience of 1,000 when previously you have only stood before 200 people. This is putting more demand on your system than you currently have capacity to handle, yet it’s a limited experience – after tomorrow, it will be over and your tension related to the event will subside.
An example of chronic stress would be a pervasive sense of not having enough time to get everything done and this concern grating one your nerves night and day. This is what some researchers refer to as allostatic load, or a chronic activation of the stress response which can lead to disease. As writers such as Robert Sapolsky have documented, the intended purpose of stress is to deal with immediate danger or overload. Allowing your stress activation to stay on around the clock will get you into trouble, whereas using it in an acute fashion to take on certain challenges will give you a return on growth and learning.
Take Control of Your Health Through Other Means: The authors of the study mention that “Those who perceive that stress affects their health may have an external locus of control, believing that their health is not in their control, but attributable to external circumstances.” It might be helpful to increase your sense of control over your health through aspects of life that you can impact, like fitness and nutrition. Try channeling some of your worry about stress into healthful actions.
Since we may have only a small amount of control over the things that cause stress – the queue of emails awaiting response, the chores waiting at the end of the day, the three meetings that got scheduled back-to-back, it’s helpful to have an additional tool in the toolkit. According to this research, changing our perception of stress is another way to get a leg up on our well-being.
If you can reduce your chronic stress, focus your attention on aspects of your health that you can influence, and shift your mindset to think of limited bouts of discomfort and tension as a positive source of growth, you might find a small but meaningful way to turn a mortal enemy into more of a friend.