Originally posted on LinkedIn by Jo Marchant

We all know that being stressed at work is bad for us. Quite apart from making us aggravated and miserable, stress chips away at our physical health, increasing the risk of chronic conditions from eczema to stroke. But scientists are discovering that stress isn’t always damaging: in the right circumstances it gives us a boost that improves both our mental performance and our physical health. What’s more, by changing how we think about stressful events – an exam or work presentation, say – we can shift our physiology from a harmful state to a helpful one.

Feeling afraid or stressed has a dramatic impact on the body. If you face a threat, whether it’s a hungry lion or angry boss, your heart beats faster. You breathe more heavily, and your pupils dilate. Blood is diverted away from non-urgent areas such as the gut and sexual organs and towards the limbs and brain. Digestion slows, and fat and glucose are released into the bloodstream to fuel your next move.

This fight-or-flight response is controlled by stress hormones released into the blood stream, including adrenaline and cortisol, as well as the sympathetic nervous system, which connects the brain to the body’s major organ systems. It has evolved to help us survive in emergencies, and in most animals it switches off as soon as the threat has passed. But humans have the ability to worry all the time, even about things that have already happened or may never happen at all.

Such chronic anxiety leaves us on constant alert, and over time this can damage the body, increasing the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, for example. Stress also triggers an immune response called inflammation, which acts as the body’s first line of defense against infection and injury. That’s great in an emergency but if switched on all the time it can eat away at healthy tissues, exacerbating conditions from diabetes to dementia. Inflammation is even thought to accelerate cellular aging by wearing down the ends of our chromosomes.

The good news is that stressful events don’t harm us directly. What does the damage is our psychological response to those events, and this we have some control over. In my book, Cure: a journey into the science of mind over body, I investigated the scientific evidence behind a range of stress-busting techniques. For example, mindfulness meditation aims to help us distance ourselves from our worries. We’re encouraged to recognize that negative thoughts are fleeting and don’t represent reality. Trials show that mindfulness training reduces stress and anxiety, protects against depression, and improves quality of life. There’s some evidence that this in turn has physical health benefits, such as easing pain and auto-immune disease, and reducing our susceptibility to infections from the common cold to HIV.

I was surprised to discover, however, that not all fight-or-flight is the same, and sometimes it can actually be good for us. Psychologist Wendy Mendes of the University of California, San Francisco, uses the example of a skier who unexpectedly comes across a steep icy trail; it’s her only way down the mountain. Her heart rate will rise, but depending on how experienced she is, she might feel either fear or exhilaration. And those have different physiological effects.

Psychologists call these contrasting states “challenge” and “threat”. “Challenge” is the mindset of a hunter closing in for kill, or a fighter who knows she’s going to win. To put that in a work setting, imagine giving a talk or going into a job interview where you’re confident of success and keen to show off your talents. Your sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive, causing your peripheral blood vessels to dilate. This allows your heart to work more efficiently, pumping oxygenated blood to the limbs and brain. People experiencing this type of response perform better than normal, not just physically but mentally too.

Fear, on the other hand, causes the body to go into damage control mode as it prepares for defeat. You’re being hunted and there’s no escape, or fighting a stronger adversary. At work, going into that presentation or job interview, you feel underprepared. Instead of focusing on the potential rewards, you’re terrified of embarrassing yourself or losing out.

In this state, psychologists have found that the sympathetic nervous system activates to a lesser extent. Instead of dilating, your peripheral blood vessels constrict and your heart beats less efficiently, meaning less blood is pumped around the body. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense: it minimizes blood flow if you’re caught or injured. But it also impairs performance and strains the cardiovascular system, because the heart is forced to work harder to push blood around the body. A threat response also triggers inflammation, as the immune system prepares for injury and infection.

When it comes to longer-term health, challenge responses are generally positive, while threat responses are damaging. Mendes has found that people who experience a challenge response bounce back to normal fairly quickly. Mild to moderate bursts of such “positive’ stress, with time to relax in between, are thought to provide a useful workout for the cardiovascular and immune system.

But people in a threat state take longer to recover, physically and mentally. They worry more about how they performed, and remain more vigilant for future threat. Their blood pressure stays high. Over time, the extra strain on the heart can lead to hypertension, while high levels of stress hormones contribute to chronic inflammation.

Crucially, it turns out that thinking differently about stressful events – focusing on what we have to gain rather than what we might lose, for example – can help us to shift from a threat state to a challenge state. In fact, Mendes has found that a change as simple as how we interpret our physical response to stress can have dramatic results.

In one study, she subjected volunteers to a stressful public speaking task. She told one group that if they experienced physical symptoms of anxiety during the test, such as a racing heart, this was a good sign. It meant that oxygenated blood was being delivered to their brain and muscles, she explained, and this would help them to perform better. Just knowing this shifted these volunteers towards a challenge response – with greater vasodilatation and cardiac output, compared to those who were advised instead to ignore the source of their stress, or who received no instructions at all.

In another study, Mendes found that reframing the body’s responses in this way didn’t just shift volunteers’ physiology, it improved their performance too. She asked students preparing for the Graduate Record Exam (a high-stakes test required for admission into graduate school) to sit a fake test in the lab. Compared to a control group, those advised to interpret their stress as positive had physiological benefits as in the other study. But they also scored higher – not just in the fake test but in the real GRE, which they sat weeks later.

Changing your outlook isn’t a magical solution to all work stress. If you’re overworked, badly treated, or doing a job you don’t enjoy, consider what you might do to change that. Meanwhile employers have a responsibility to treat their workers well. But all jobs worth doing will challenge and stretch you, and you have more control than you think about how you respond. With even a small shift in attitude, you can start to perform better under pressure. And that may improve your long-term health too.


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