Newsflash: There’s an upside to stress

by Amber K. Alsobrooks, M.S., M.A., Licensed Psychological Associate

There are many definitions of stress, but it can be generally viewed as an imbalanced equation: Perceived DEMANDS > Perceived RESOURCES = STRESS

Given this framework, we can define stress as feeling like we don’t have enough resources (time, energy, money, support, strength, patience, etc.) to meet demands (deadlines at work, client expectations, family needs, personal goals, etc.).  It’s this imbalance that over time can lead to familiar negative effects, including increased risk of depression and anxiety, weight gain, impaired cognitive functioning, reduced creativity and productivity and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

On the flip side, stress can be beneficial.  If we’re presented with a project at work and have limited resources – that causes stress. However, this can be viewed as a challenge rather than a threat. When this happens, we’re motivated to seek new resources to meet the demands.  For example, we may reach out to other colleagues for help, resulting in creative solutions and fostering a sense of teamwork. We may work to gain new knowledge and skills, which enhances our resources to meet demands in the future. In the same way lifting weights challenges muscles to build strength, working to meet challenges leads to a sense of accomplishment and meaning; fosters connections with others; enhances creativity, and builds resilience. This process is reflective of the “Broaden and Build Theory.”

With this demands vs. resources equation in mind, here are some strategies to balance the equation so the stressor can become more of a challenge than a threat:

  • Be kind to your body. Exercise, proper nutrition and sleep are the foundation of any stress management strategy. These practices are key in building resources related to cognitive functioning, and physical and emotional energy. In the face of stress, your physical health matters.

  • Optimize time management. Books and articles on this topic are ubiquitous – so are your options for strategies.  Find the ones that work for you, and you’ll have more resources (time, energy) and decreased demands (by prioritizing and letting go of things that don’t serve your goals).  While not intuitive, one often overlooked time management strategy is to take a break. Research shows that taking breaks every day typically increases productivity. Pair your breaks with time outside or with people that you enjoy or those that motivate you, and you’ve leveled up your resources.

  • Change cognitive patterns. Cognitive appraisal, or how we think about situations and the construct of stress, can serve as our greatest ally, particularly in decreasing perceived demands and increasing perceived resources. Here are some evidence-based tips from the field of psychology, to help change your cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioral responses to things you may interpret as “stressful”:
    • Unfilter yourself. Most of us have developed mental filters, or patterns of thinking, that affect the way we experience certain situations. Recognizing our own patterns helps reframe challenges so they don’t result in panic for the body and brain. You can find a list of unhelpful thinking styles here. See if you recognize your automatic patterns of thinking. Next, make a note of how common stressors in your workplace might “look” less overwhelming if you did not use that thinking style.

    • Rethink the situation. Once you recognize patterns of unhelpful thinking styles, you can approach challenges from a more logical perspective. When you begin to feel your fight-or-flight response kicking into overdrive, listen to your internal dialogue.  Are you telling yourself there’s no way you can do (insert recent challenge here)?  NOW - think of all the evidence that you CAN, including your own proven track record at succeeding in your career and life. If you find this task difficult, start to make written notes about daily successes for future reference.

    • Rethink stress itself. Newsflash: There is an upside to stress – it can actually enhance your work and life. Just as we can reduce unhealthy stress responses through examining and reframing how we think about situations, we can actually thrive in the presence of challenges by changing our cognitions around the very construct of stress.

How we perceive stress may have more of an influence on negative physical health outcomes than the actual levels or frequency of stress we experience. In fact, research shows that the combined interaction between the amount of stress and the perception of how stress affects health increased risk of stress-influenced death by 43 percent.

The physiological changes you feel when you’re under pressure mean your body is giving you extra resources to meet a challenge. One key way to thrive with stress is to foster an appreciation for your body and recognize that it’s trying to be helpful. For instance, if you’re charged with delivering a pitch or meeting a deadline, the physiological and mental processes that occur can give you that extra push to help you focus and keep you in the zone for optimal performance.

Work, and the rest of life, will present a variety of situations that can be considered stressful by any definition.  When we find ways to build resources to meet demands, and learn to trust our capacity to succeed in the presence of stress, we become more resilient and grow personally and professionally.


Human Intelligence: Stress in the Workplace

Posted by AICPA on Friday, July 13, 2018