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How often do you view stress as beneficial?

Today is January 16 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you view stress as beneficial?” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill noted “You can measure a man's character by the choices he makes under pressure.”

Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McGonigal wrote The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It and declared that people can develop healthier outlooks as well as improve performance on cognitive tests, at work, and in competition.

In a May 7, 2015, interview published on Stanford University News website McGonigal said “The initial research on stress mindsets, which was conducted by Stanford psychology Assistant Professor Alia Crum, showed that viewing stress as a helpful part of life, rather than as harmful, is associated with better health, emotional well-being and productivity at work – even during periods of high stress. One reason that how you think about stress matters is because it changes how you respond to stress. Viewing stress as harmful leads people to cope in ways that are less helpful, whether it’s getting drunk to “release” stress, procrastinating to avoid stress, or imagining worst-case scenarios. One study found that simply having the goal to avoid stress increased the long-term risk of outcomes like depression, divorce and getting fired, by increasing people’s reliance on harmful coping strategies. In contrast, viewing stress more positively seems to encourage people to cope in ways that help them thrive, whether it’s tackling the source of stress, seeking social support or finding meaning in it.”

In her book, McGonigal discusses how stress can either be beneficial (adaptive) or harmful (threatening). With beneficial or adaptive stress, the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands pump stress hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol, into the bloodstream while heartbeat and breathing speed up, and muscles tense.

According to researcher Wendy Mendes people experiencing beneficial stress feel pumped, their blood vessels dilate, and have an increase in blood flow to help the brain, muscles, and limbs meet a challenge. The body, however, tends to respond differently under harmful or threatening stress. Christopher Edwards, director of the behavioral chronic pain management program at Duke University Medical Center, suggests that the blood vessels constrict, and “you may feel a little dizzy as your blood pressure rises.”

“Stress is a very healthy thing, because it gives you the energy you need to live life,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD. Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger III is an American retired airline captain who demonstrated how to handle beneficial stress when he successfully executed an emergency water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River off Manhattan, New York City, on January 15, 2009.

His aircraft was disabled by striking a flock of Canada geese during its climb out from LaGuardia Airport. All 155 people aboard the aircraft survived. American biathlete Clare Egan uses multiple techniques to manage the stress of skiing and target shooting.

In a February 2018 New York Times article, she highlighted one strategy is “compete against yourself and nobody else. You have to let go of how everyone else is doing and focus on your own work. If you can do that, you’re going to have a performance you can be proud of, whether it’s giving a presentation or a piano recital or biathlon.”

Another technique people use is known as reappraisal. Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks designed an experiment to find out if telling people to calm down during a stressful moment was beneficial.

In her research paper “Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement,” published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, she recruited 140 people to give a speech. She told part of the group to relax and repeat the phrase “I am calm,” while the others were told to embrace their anxiety and tell themselves, “I am excited.”

Members of both groups were still nervous before the speech, but the participants who had told themselves “I am excited” felt better able to handle the pressure, were more confident of their ability to give a compelling talk and received higher approval ratings from the audience.

The excited speakers were found to be more persuasive, confident, and competent than the participants who had tried to calm down. By changing the mindset just slightly, from “calm down” to “I am excited,” the speakers had transformed their anxiety into energy that helped them to perform under pressure. In commenting on Brooks' study Julia Weiland wrote “In Brooks’ study, she discusses the cognitive process required to go from a state of anxiety to a state of calmness. The process is called ‘reappraisal.’

In their book, Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most, Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry concluded that “the difference between regular people and ultra-successful people is not that the latter group thrives under pressure. It’s that they’re better able to mitigate its negative effects.”

Both Sully and Egan experienced extremely stressful situations but were able to mitigate its negative effects, and, therefore, navigated the chaos of the moment.

  • How often do you view stress as beneficial?

  • Has your response to stress developed over the years or do you think it has remained the same?

  • When is the last time you reflected upon your relationship with stress?

  • How would you like to handle stress moving forward?

  • How often do you mitigate the negative effects of stress?


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