We don’t want to hear it but we need to: stress is good for us. In fact, the right amount is very good for us, while too little or too much can prove problematic, debilitating or even lethal.
Just consider how many professional footballers, for example, shoulder the stress of having tens of millions of people every week scrutinising their every move, while perpetually on public trial to justify their massive wage or transfer fees.
Think of how they funnel that remorseless pressure – that preposterous public expectation, adulation and flogging – so they can perform to their optimum over 90 minutes on a Saturday. Why are these young adults not all going down on the morning of a match to chronic stress, producing sick notes by the dozen or hanging up their boots prematurely?
The reason is they’ve learned how to redirect stress into motivation and excitement, rather than allowing it to succumb to anxiety and fear. And the good news is you don’t have to be a filthy-rich prima donna to do the very same.
The positive adaptations of moderate stress have been slow to come out – perhaps for fear of demeaning those suffering from understandable, “justified” chronic stress (ie prolonged emotional pressure, over which you feel you have little or no control, as a result of the death of a spouse, for example, or unrelenting, well-grounded fears for your safety or survival). It’s notable that while we all understand what “distress” means, few have ever even heard of its converse, “eustress”. The psychological, physical or biochemical benefits of stress, eustress is simply when a person perceives a stressor as positive. So, is it all just in the eye of the beholder?
Finding your stress sweet spot
"Most people have the capacity to control the contents of their consciousness through simple mind management," says clinical psychologist and cognitive neuroscientisr Prof Ian Robertson of Trinity College Dublin. His latest book, The Stress Test, is the lovechild of over four decades of research in the sector, and takes an engaging and insightful look behind the latest science to show how moderate stress can make you sharper, stronger and more content in everyday life.
To be clear, moderate stress doesn’t mean pleasant stress, but it should be manageable, such as conflict with families or neighbours: kept in perspective, something strong enough to slow you, but not stop you, in your tracks.
The huge irony about stress is that while it’s being reported at alarming levels across the developed world, previous generations had significantly harder, more threatening and less secure lives than we do in the 21st century. Does this reflect more on the seemingly unbearable demands and constraints of modern living, or our ability to deal with life’s pressures as adequately as our forbears dealt with theirs?
“Today, expectations are higher and communities are weaker,” says Roberston, “while people are acting much more as ‘sole traders’ in competition. But a major factor is that expectations for happiness, success and appearance are very, very high, so experiences of tedium or mediocrity can be experienced as negative. Fifty years ago, people were just glad to have a job; they compared themselves to someone down the street, not with some sleek celebrity on the web.”
Excitement not stress
Robertson is a devout disciple of the Yerkes-Dodson Law from 1908, which established an empirical relationship between arousal and performance. In summary, there is an optimal level of arousal for all performance, above and below which performance is poor. To access and utilise the sweet spot means you have to be able to engineer your own arousal. But how?
A very simple technique to begin with is to look at the physical symptoms: quick heartbeat, dry mouth, churning stomach, muscle tension and sweaty palms or skin. All are symptomatic of both stress and excitement, only context determines how we chose to distinguish one from the other.
For example, next time you tell yourself “I’m stressed”, exchange it for, “I’m excited”. By the brain setting an alternative, plausible context, you can transform a sense of oppressiveness or threat into a sense of challenge and opportunity, thereby fuelling the feel-good hormone, dopamine. However, saying “I’m calm”, when you’re blatantly not, is a lie that brings about no positive changes.
Another simple technique to alter the context is breath. The brain’s production of adrenaline is chemosensitive, meaning it will respond to how much carbon dioxide is in your blood, which is controlled not just by breathing but by how you breathe. By breathing slowly and deeply (eg an in-breath and out-breath each of about five seconds), it can help drop your arousal levels down into the optimal performance sweet spot.
Stop your mind wandering
A third technique is to keep that rabid mind from wandering. “Our minds wander on average 160 times a day, and this kind of unfocused worrying during stressful times can lead to anxious thoughts that can spiral into a vicious cycle of anxiety, procrastination or poor performance. The best method so far for coping with this is mindfulness practice,” says Robertson, one of the world’s leading researchers in neuropsychology.
And before going to sleep each night during stressful times, make a point of focusing your attention on three good things, however minor, that happened that day: no matter how insurmountable things might seem, there’s always room to appreciate such small mercies. Gratitude during testing times will help your ability to attain quality sleep, as well as help restore a little context around the scale, seriousness and solvability of the stressor.
Memory, cortisol and adversity
As memory, subconscious or not, of previous taxing situations so often trigger the stress strings of today, we need to look at the labels we’ve previously put on those situations – the Frankensteins we have all unwittingly created in our past.
"Memory of previous stressful situations can lead to symptoms arising in anticipation during situations that resemble the original stressor. The best way of overcoming is to actually enter the feared situation and stay there until symptoms reduce," says Robertson, who addresses this in The Stress Test by looking at how snake-phobic people have been gradually but successfully treated.
Then there’s the C word. “Cortisol is the key stress hormone, while adrenaline is a more non-specific arousal hormone for a wider range of situations. Cortisol is a hormone designed to help us prepare for threat by fighting or fleeing. It has short-term benefits on memory and muscle function, for example, but if chronically elevated it can be toxic generally to the brain and body,” says Robertson.
It’s when adrenaline and cortisol are ramped up long-term to unsustainable levels that we can become chronically stressed: that malignant, oppressive, enduring feeling that the demands made upon you exceed your ability to ever cope with them, leaving you feeling that you’re on a hiding to nothing.
“With chronic stress, cortisol function becomes disrupted, and doesn’t show the healthy pattern which involves an increase in levels just after getting up in the morning and then a tapering off. It is a very good marker of stress.”
And just as the Yerkes-Dodson Law established the sweet spot of arousal over a century ago, recent research has discovered a comparable sweet spot for adversity’s countermanding of stress. Moderate adversity in youth helps you to embrace and harness moderate stress in adulthood. People with very little stress or adversity in their childhood often end up being more emotionally vulnerable and stress-susceptible as young adults, and more likely to be depressed and anxious. However, severe adversity in childhood can be as bad for stress in adulthood as no adversity at all.
In fact, moderate stress levels have been proven to help cognitive functioning in older people. In many cases, retirement can offer few if any challenges to the individual, which fails to generate little or any adrenaline. This impacts the growth of new brains cells and connections, says Robertson.
The art of knowing what to overlook
"We're living in the Age of Distraction, where everything can seem important," says business psychologist Tanya Sheehan of KinchLyons in Dublin.
"The challenge is to be present and engaged, while retaining focus and attention. The famous psychologist William James once said, 'the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook'."
Unlike other animals, humans have wandering minds and spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on, such as stuff that happened in the past, that might happen in the future or that never happen at all. Although this ability is an evolutionary cognitive achievement that helps us to learn, reason and plan, it also has consequences for our emotions and wellbeing,” says Sheehan.
The psychologist emphasises the value of emotional intelligence in helping us understand ourselves and how we react to situations, how we prioritise, make decisions, manage stress and develop resilience. When used effectively, we can leverage our emotional intelligence to keep things in perspective, to prioritise our responsibilities, to set boundaries, and to ensure we’re spending time doing what we value. And key to this, says Sheehan, is setting goals that are SMART– Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Timely).
“Unrealistic goals or expectations are potentially damaging because they can set us up for failure. If we fall short, we draw false conclusions, feel negative feelings and act in negative ways. A helpful tip, when writing down goals, is to say saying ‘I am’ rather than ‘I will’ or ‘I want to’. For example, ‘I am running 5 kilometres,’ or ‘I am spending more time with my partner’. That way, we’re already present and engaged with our goals and on the path to achieving them.”
Stress and the snowflake generation
“Many millennials have benefited from growing up in a largely financially wealthy world and have often been over-protected by parents and shielded from adversity,” says Robertson. “People need some adversity in their early lives so that they recognise that the symptoms of stress and low mood do pass, and that problems can be solved.”
According to Jane Downes, author of The Career Book and principal coach at Clearview Coaching Group, what the millennial generation is seeking is a career with personal meaning and social value, which can be a tall ask at times.
“But with this comes the need to put their focus on constant improvement and personal effectiveness. However, this pursuit of perfection is causing stress for millennials, who put a high value on happiness and, sometimes, instant gratification. So how do they manage their stress? Overall, stress management for millennials is almost as important as their technology, since the expectation on them is only growing. Within their professional life the management of restless realism is a battle.”
Downes raises a new phenomenon attached to millennials, which is the rise of Career FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out.
“This isn’t only about their social life causing mental stress, but can affect their work life too. We know, however, that unfortunate comparisons don’t work and, at times, millennials are not comparing like with like. The key to fob stress in this situation is to choose role models instead. Millennials can be blindsided by the sheer availability of everything. In previous generations this was less prevalent as there was less choice.”