You know the feeling. In your head, it’s like a jackhammer. In your chest, it’s like a vice. In your stomach, it’s like a lead weight. It’s stress.
Stress costs the American economy about $300 billion a year in medical bills and missed work, according to the World Health Organization. Headlines call stress an epidemic, and nearly every day we learn more about how it’s hurting us: It makes us eat too much, sleep too little, lash out, get sick, and falter at work and school.
Curiously, however, new research suggests that all the attention to the risks of stress may actually be part of the problem. Though it tends to get lost in the frenzy, our stress response evolved to do us good; psychologists have long recognized that under the right conditions, it can improve mental and physical health and boost athletic and cognitive performance. And researchers are finding that one way to unleash this positive side of stress is simply to retrain ourselves to think of it differently.
“There are public-health messages everywhere telling us how bad stress is for us,” says Alia Crum, a psychologist at Columbia University’s Business School. “I ask people how that makes them feel, and the answer is, ‘stressed.’”
Crum is among a growing number of researchers who say we shouldn’t just bemoan the toxic effects of stress and try to outrun it. In fact, that negative view of stress may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, she and others argue, we need to recast stress as something that can be benign, even productive—and, by believing so, start to make it work for us.
Stress was introduced as a medical term during the Great Depression, fittingly enough, by the Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye. Working at McGill University, Selye traced the links between stressors, the brain, and the glands that produce stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. He also cataloged the ills of chronic stress, including ulcers and a withered immune system.
But Selye didn’t think all stress was bad. He contrasted negative distress with beneficial eustress (literally “good stress”). Eustress led to learning, growth, fulfillment, and even the thrill of victory. Distress caused anxiety, withdrawal, hopelessness, and depression.
Today, nearly all stress news is bad news. As we are constantly reminded, it lurks behind every modern malady, including obesity, heart trouble, academic struggles, depression, and family dysfunction. The only “good stress,” it would seem, is stress avoided entirely.
But there is also substantial evidence that we depend on stress to thrive, and that under the right circumstances stress is a boon rather than a bane. For instance, studies show that the body’s initial response to stress, including intense stress, revs up the immune system. The stress response also rushes oxygen and glucose energy through the body, increasing strength and brainpower.
“In reality, the stress response is designed to boost our body and mind to a state where we can face what we need to face,” says Crum.
So what makes the difference in how we respond to stress—as a source of power, or as a disabling handicap? One answer is duration. Research indicates that stress we might benefit from in the short term can turn on us if it becomes chronic. In addition, some of our stress responses may be genetic. One recent large-scale study of Taiwanese students, for instance, linked performance on a high-stakes exam to variations in a gene that helps control the flow of neurotransmitters in a stressed brain.
But Crum and others are finding that something even simpler—and much more controllable than your DNA—predicts how we respond to stress in our lives: our expectations.
Crum’s interest in stress began with research she did on the placebo effect as a psychology student. Instead of viewing placebos as fake medicines that trick people into feeling better, Crum saw them as evidence that our mindsets—the basic beliefs and reference frames we use to organize the world—could actually change our reality. In her research, Crum began finding placebo-like effects beyond medicine, in domains such as exercise and appetite. She knew about Selye’s work, including his distinction between eustress and distress, and so she decided to research stress mindsets for her doctoral dissertation at Yale.
In 2009, seeking a high-stress environment to examine, Crum visited the offices of an international bank that had been hemorrhaging employees and dollars since the mortgage meltdown began in 2007. “There was this feeling like, I could be out on the street at any moment if I’m not seen as valuable,” a former bank employee told me. “We couldn’t talk about anything long-term or plan any initiative that didn’t have an immediate impact on the bottom line.”
Along with Shawn Achor, CEO of Good Think, a positive-psychology consulting firm, Crum gave hundreds of employees at the ailing bank a stress survey. Many reported feeling unhealthy, low on energy, anxious, and overwhelmed. The employees were then randomly assigned short videos showcasing either the enhancing or debilitating aspects of stress. As described in a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (coauthored by psychologist Peter Salovey, Yale’s incoming president), a second survey several days later revealed that stress beliefs were swayed by the videos. (Tellingly, control subjects who watched no videos mostly saw stress as bad.) Employees who watched stress-is-enhancing videos reported significant improvements in mental and physical health, energy, work performance, and general well-being. Members of the other groups, meanwhile, reported no improvements.
A follow-up experiment by Crum on college students suggested how those who saw stress as benign might benefit. Asked to prepare and give an impromptu speech, students who had earlier indicated a positive attitude toward stress were more likely to accept an offer of constructive criticism from experts. Their cortisol response to the stress of public speaking was also more likely to be “just right”—important, since either a very high or very low level of this stress hormone can be bad for health.
Stress isn’t guaranteed to obey our expectations, Crum hastens to say, but it’s clear that by focusing only on its dangers, we increase its potential for harm and cut off the possible benefits.
Crum is not the only one finding that what we expect from stress can make it motivate us rather than undermine performance. Other recent studies have looked at how we interpret precompetition stress symptoms like stomach butterflies, sweaty palms, and elevated heart rate. In a yet-to-be-published study of runners, British sports psychologists found that raising the stakes of a 1,600-meter time trial slowed times for runners who associated prerace jitters with sub-par performance. Runners who interpreted these symptoms as getting psyched up, however, ran just as fast in high-stakes races.
An academic-performance study, meanwhile, suggested that giving precompetition stress a positive spin not only protects us from choking under pressure but could actually give us a competitive edge. In an experiment by psychologists Jeremy Jamieson, Wendy Mendes, and others, published in 2010 by the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the researchers told students who were about to take a practice Graduate Record Exam that pretest arousal had been found to improve cognitive function and performance. These test takers averaged 739 on the math section, compared to 684 among controls. (There was no significant difference in verbal scores.) That group did better on the real GRE, too.
Of course, emphasizing the potential benefits of stress is not to deny that it can hurt us—chronic stress especially. Finding ways to relax—whether it’s through meditation, exercise, or reading a good book—has been shown to improve sleep, health, and overall well-being.
But in a world where deadlines must be met, tests passed, and bills paid, stress can’t be escaped entirely. And embracing its upside may be better than simply avoiding it for another reason: It allows us to practice handling stress, and to get better at it.
Research indicates that after repeated exposure to moderate stress, our response becomes more efficient—a phenomenon that psychologist Richard Dienstbier, in 1989, called “physiological toughening.” A toughened stress response was strong and adrenaline rich, providing a boost of oxygen, glucose, and immune response adequate to meet the challenge. Dienstbier suggested that there might be a “positive spiral” in which people with a toughened stress response are more likely to see stress as a challenge they can master, making them less fearful and more likely to handle it well, which then leads to further toughening of their stress response.
“It’s a fitness idea,” says neuroendocrinologist Bruce McEwen, whose theory of allostasis (stability through change) builds on the theory of toughening. It works the other way, too. For instance, people with clinically measured low self-esteem often have a hyperactive cortisol response to stress, which may eventually weaken areas of the brain that keep stress hormones in check. “You become less and less able to manage stress, and it becomes a vicious cycle,” says McEwen.
The goal is to find ways to flip that stress-
response cycle from bad to good. Jamieson, for instance, is working with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to help community college students in a remedial math course reappraise their response to math exams. These students have a history of failure, which Jamieson says leads to “math anxiety,” clogging up the working memory that is critical for math. Meanwhile, Achor and Crum have woven their research findings into a corporate leadership training sold by Achor’s company, aimed to help employees see stress as a potential ally rather than an enemy.
These tactics may be new, but they would have been no surprise to Selye, who studied stress for half a century. “Man should not try to avoid stress any more than he would shun food, love, or exercise,” he once wrote. “It is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”
Chris Berdik is a journalist in Boston. His book, “Mind Over Mind,” was published in 2012 by Current, an imprint of Penguin.