“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
– William James
Stress is probably the most used word whenever people face difficulties in their studies, work, or other activities. No matter how hard people try to avoid stress, it is inevitable. It is part of our body’s nonspecific response to any demand or challenge we face or any event we deem threatening (Kalat, 2017).
Despite being a necessary part of survival, a plethora of studies reveals the harmful impact of stress on our body function (Yaribeygi et al., 2017), autonomic and neuroendocrine responses (O’Connor et al., 2020), and our behavior concerning our health (Hill et al. 2018; O’Connor et al. 2008; Tomiyama 2019). Before, our ancestors used stress to prepare their bodies for fight-or-flight responses (Kalat, 2017). Today, people have prolonged exposure to stress due to several factors such as pressure from work, income, the health of a relative, and education (Sapolsky, 1998 as cited in Kalat, 2017). Moreover, a study by Silver et al. (2013) suggested that stress responses can also be triggered by watching televised coverage of a major disaster.
The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most televised news in different countries that details the total tally of positive results, recoveries, and even death. This can add to the stress, and anxiety people are already feeling due to the exacerbated pressures brought by the new demands of working in a new normal. Employees feel heightened stress because of their remote work setup. In a study conducted by Include (2021), they saw an increase in reports of workplace harassment. About a quarter of employees stated that they experienced toxicity and gender-based harassment based in their workplace. According to Job van der Voort, CEO and co-founder of the HR tech company, Remote, employees may be “acting out” as a way of dealing with high levels of stress and anxiety (Place, 2021). The pandemic has amplified life stressors and introduced many life challenges to many individuals who were also affected. If not immediately settled, prolonged exposure to stress can also affect our mental health. It can lead to anxiety and depression, substance use problems, and sleep problems (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, n.d.).
In this light, people need to seek effective ways to deal with stress to avoid other physical and mental complications that may arise from it. However, it seems that our own beliefs about stress do more harm to us than being stressed alone. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, gave a TedTalk about the importance of people’s perception of stress’ impact on their health (Ted, 2013). For the past ten years, McGonigal told her patients that stress is harmful to their bodies and frequent exposure could compromise their health. She suggests to her patients that it is crucial to reduce, if not avoid, stress if they want to live healthier and happier.
A study conducted by Keller et al. (2013) made McGonigal rethink her telling her patients how to handle stress. The study revealed that people who reported experiencing high levels of stress and believed that stress is harmful to their health are more likely to die by 43% than people who share the same stress level but did not believe in its possible impact on their health. The latter has the least likelihood of experiencing premature death among other participants.
In this regard, McGonigal suggested that people should start changing their view about stress through the following methods:
Acknowledging your body’s response to stress
McGonigal stated that physical responses to stress include rapid heart pounding, sweating, and faster breathing. Often, these are viewed as anxiety symptoms or a sign that one is not effective in handling pressure. However, people must start seeing those physical responses as our bodies’ way of preparing themselves to meet the demands of an external challenge and help us face difficulties. Jamieson et al. (2012) found out that people can enhance their physiological and cognitive reactions to stressful events by altering the way they think about bodily responses to stress. People who view stress responses as helpful, their heart rate is still elevated, but the blood vessels are relaxed, which is healthier for the cardiovascular system. In contrast, people who have a traditional view about stress have constricted blood vessels while the heart is pounding. This is associated with cardiovascular diseases emerging from chronic stress.
Recognizing the social aspect of stress
The hormone oxytocin is popularly known as the “cuddle” hormone because it is associated with social bonding activities such as maternal bonding, lactation, and sexual pleasures (DeAngelis, 2008). Unbeknownst to many, a significant amount of oxytocin is also released under stressful conditions. According to McGonigal, the increased secretion of this hormone allows us to be social during stressful times. It could be our body’s way of telling us that we need someone to rely on in times of difficulty. Thus, it is helpful to seek others’ help and support whenever we need it.
The new approach to stress by Dr. Kelly McGonigal seems to be promising as it encourages everyone to look at the pressure in a positive light. These days, where one can feel stress at pretty much anything, it is essential to remember that a friend is willing to help you prepare your defenses to win against life’s challenges and reminds you to seek support from people who matter to you.
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (n.d.). Stress. https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/stress
DeAngelis, T. (2008, February). The two faces of oxytocin. American Psychological Association, 39(2). https://www.apa.org/monitor/feb08/oxytocin
Hill D. C, Moss R. H., Sykes-Muskett B., Conner M., & O’Connor D.B. (2018). Stress and eating behaviors in children
and adolescents: systematic review and meta-analysis. Appetite 123, 14–22. https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/125078/1/Meta-Analysis%20Manuscript_ACCEPTED.pdf
Include. (2021, March). Remote work since Covid-19 is exacerbating harm: What companies need to know and do. https://projectinclude.org/assets/pdf/Project_Include_Harassment_Report_0321_R8.pdf
Jamieson, J., Nock, M., & Mendes, W. (2012, August). Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. J Exp Psychol Gen, 141(3), 417-422. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025719
Kalat, J. (2017). Biological psychology (12th ed.). Cengage Learning.
Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell., & Witt, W. (2012, September). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677-684. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026743
O’Connor D. B., Jones F., Conner M., McMillan B., & Ferguson E. (2008). Effects of daily hassles and eating style
on eating behavior. Health Psychology, 27, 20–31. hhtps://doi.org/10.1037/0278-6133.
O’Connor, D. B., Thayer, J. F., & Vedhara, K. (2020). Stress and Health: A Review of Psychobiological Processes. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1). https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-062520-122331
Place, A. (2021, July 26). How to prevent employee stress from spiraling into harassment. EBN. https://www.benefitnews.com/news/how-to-prevent-employee-stress-from-spiraling-into-harassment
Silver, R., Holman, E. A., Andersen, J. P., Poulin, M., McIntosh, D., & Gil-Rivas, V. (2013, August 1). Mental- and physical-health effects of acute exposure to media images of the September 11, 2001, attacks and the Iraq War. Psychological Science 24(9), 1623-34. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612460406
Ted. (2013, September 4). How to make stress your friend [Video]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcGyVTAoXEU&ab_channel=TED
Tomiyama A. J. (2019). Stress and obesity. Annual Review of Psychology, 70, 703-718. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-102936
Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T., Sahebkar, A. (2017, July 21). The impact of stress on body function: A review. Excli Journal, 16, 1057-1072. https://doi.org./10.17179/excli2017-480