10 October, 2020

World Mental Health Day: Can stress be positive?

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘stress’? For many people, the word has overwhelmingly negative connotations, but the reality is more complex. Stress is a part of life. It is a natural survival mechanism and happens in our bodies to help us meet the demands of daily life. Some degree of stress can be good for us and help us reach our potential. It gives us drive and focus, and supports learning, growth and resilience. Eustress (the Greek prefix eu meaning good ) is the beneficial stress that is associated with positive feelings and health benefits. If we accept this more nuanced picture, with stress being something that brings both risks and benefits, how should we approach its management? It is important to recognise that stress is highly subjective and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Also, our response can change over time and be influenced by many variables, including context, environment, health, resources and mood state. But whatever the context and situation, a proactive approach to stress is a powerful tool. This proactive approach is twofold: a healthy stress mindset and building protective habits.  

A healthy stress mindset is 'Worry less, love what you do!'

  How we think and feel about stress mediates how it impacts us. A study conducted in the US with around 30,000 adults found that those who perceived their stress as harmful had a 43% increased risk of premature death compared with those experiencing similar levels of stress who did not perceive it to be harmful (Keller et al., 2012). ‘The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.’ – William James, American philosopher and psychologist, 1842-1910 Of course, some situations are immensely challenging, and it is important not to belittle these. Not all stress can, or should, be made into a positive experience. It is ok not to be ok, it is ok to feel overwhelmed, and there is always help at hand at OIC. However, a great deal of everyday life stress arises from situations we have more control over than we realise.

Building protective habits

  Become a worry ninja! This can help manage everyday challenges and setbacks. Such habits include: • Using positive imagery • Challenging catastrophic or unhelpful thoughts • Developing effective relaxation strategies • Practising mindfulness • Making use of breathing exercises • Engaging in regular exercise (even just going for a brisk walk every now and then – South Park is at your doorstep!) • Aiming for a balanced nutrition (limiting sugary foods and caffeine) • Getting 7-9 hours sleep per night • Scheduling recharge breaks throughout the day • Listening to music • Spending time with friends and family – face to face, via FaceTime or phone   Many of these strategies are very simple and bring real benefits, especially when part of a regular routine. It is often harder to implement things that are not ‘the norm’ when we already struggle, but it is during these times that the practices can make the most difference. Optimising wellbeing is not about trying to avoid stress altogether, it is about developing the awareness to recognise what is happening and to manage our responses. We all have the potential to do this!   Dr Eva Sommar OIC Head of Health and Wellbeing  
  1. Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677.
  2. S. Wood. (2019). The ‘S’ Word: Why we need to change the way we think about stress. Positivegroup.org