You feel it ahead of a big exam. Your stomach churns before a job interview. Your heart races before you board a plane. Stress is something everyone is likely to experience at some point.
But stress doesn’t have to be an obstacle. In fact, it can be a useful tool.
A recent study from the University of Rochester found that re-evaluating perceptions of stress can improve mental health, wellbeing and ultimately, success.
In undertaking the study, the team of psychologists enlisted a group of adolescents and young adults at a community college.
The students were asked to complete a reading and writing task that taught them stress could pay a role in their performance in tasks like taking tests.
The psychologists taught the students to view their stress as a useful tool rather than an annoying obstacle.
They discovered this approach led to a reduction in student anxiety. The students were also able to get better grades on tests, stay enrolled in their community college classes, procrastinate less and respond well to challenges in their academic life.
“We generally observed that teaching students the idea that their stress can help fuel achievement led to an increase in beneficial stress hormones and better performance on exams,” Jeremy Jamieson, PhD, lead author of the study and an associated professor of psychology at the University of Rochester told Theravive.
They found that using a “good stress” mindset was helpful for the students.
“A « good » mindset is just the belief that stress can be enhancing (not that it is always good) and lead to personal growth and goal attainment,” Jamieson explained.
For many people, stress is viewed as bad and something to be avoided at all costs. But stress is an everyday part of life and can actually be helpful.
A person waiting for a job interview might experience a fast heart rate and sweaty palms. That person may think this is a bad thing, and a sign they will do terribly in the interview. In reality, their body is experiencing a stress response that is helping to deliver oxygen to the brain and release hormones in the body that give energy. In that context, stress is actually useful.
If the person didn’t go through with the job interview simply due to stress, they would be at a disadvantage. It is an essential life skill to figure out a way to cope with stress.
The researchers argue that it is important to not necessarily link stress with anxiety or a feeling of distress. Rather, it is helpful to see stress as a natural bodily response.
Stress reappraisal can be a useful way of achieving this. Instead of viewing a racing heart or sweaty palms experienced in a stressful situation as “bad”, it can be helpful to view them in a positive way.
Stress can be beneficial to performance, psychologically, biologically and behaviourally.
Stress reappraisal is not meant to eliminate the stress experienced in stressful situations or lessen it. It’s not a method of relaxation. It is instead focused on reframing the perception and response to stress being experienced.
If a person believes they are well equipped to deal with the stress facing them, it’s ok to feel stress and have sweaty palms. In this way, because the person believed they can handle what is causing them stress, the stress response is no longer seen as a threat, but just a challenge the person is capable of overcoming.
Parents could play a role in helping their children view stress in a positive way.
Parents should recognise that some stress is normal and can promote growth. Encouraging their children to get out of their comfort zone can be a good thing and will encourage children to grow and learn.
Making the experience of stress a normal part of life and focusing on pushing through challenges can help children learn that they are capable of doing hard things and succeeding.
Trying to reduce stress for children and young people by removing obstacles entirely, like taking easier courses or avoiding exams can be counterproductive and may in fact hinder the progress of students in the long run.
The same approach applies to adults.
Avoiding stress, Jamieson says, is not the answer.
“If people avoid all stressors, they miss growth opportunities, do not push boundaries of their abilities, and generally do not innovate.”