The Positive Effects of Stress

Books, daytime talk shows, Jack Johnson—everywhere we turn someone is telling us to avoid stress. But those authors, experts, and mellow crooners might be doing everyone a disservice. Stress can be good.

Alia Crum of Columbia University and her colleagues will publish research in the April 2013 edition of The Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences that shows training people to view stress as a positive thing can significantly improve job performance and health.

Crum defines stress as the experience or anticipation of a threat or challenge in one’s goal-related efforts. “We don’t get stressed about things that don’t matter to us,” Crum says. “I think that’s critical because we’re spending all of our time and money and energy trying to get rid of our stressors. What we’re really doing is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Somewhere underneath there is something you really care about.”

She breaks stress into three categories:

1) Conflict: When what you have and what you want is different
2) Pressure: When you need to do things faster or better
3) Uncertainty: When you don’t know what is going to happen

Crum believes mindsets shape outcomes, and she wanted to test her theory on stress. She and her team conducted two studies.

The first was at a large investment company where layoffs were occurring. Three-hundred-eighty employees were split into three groups. Group 1 watched a series of videos that showed how stress can be enhancing—for example, LeBron James making a clutch free throw along with a message that said stress brings out the best in people. Group 2 watched a series of videos about how stress can be debilitating—LeBron James missing an important free throw along with a message that said stress can cause people to crumble. Group 3, the control group, watched no videos.

Group 1, the one that watched the stress-is-enhancing videos, had a significant reduction in stress-related physical symptoms such as headaches, backaches, muscle tension, and insomnia and also experienced a significant improvement in productivity assessment.

In a separate study, the researchers studied the cortisol level of students. Cortisol is a hormone related to stress that’s fine in small doses, but it can be harmful if you have too much. The researchers found that stress brought students to an optimal cortisol level.

If this sounds counterintuitive, consider a parallel. Exercise is a form of stress that benefits the body. Muscles are broken down to make them stronger. To operate efficiently, the mind needs similar challenges or stresses. Why this occurs, physiologically, is a mystery—one that Crum and her colleagues are attempting to solve.

In the coming weeks the researchers plan to release an e-training video for people who want to orient themselves into thinking stress is a good thing.

Or you can YouTube LeBron every morning.

Whatever works.

Joe Donatelli is a freelance writer. Follow him @joedonatelli.

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