By Jessica Pu (Bugle Team)
Remember the last time you stayed up until 3 am finishing your lab report? Recall that frantic moment when you saw the exam paper and didn’t know how to answer any of the questions? In both cases, you were stressed.
Stress is our body’s response to a stimulus that disrupts our physical and/or mental equilibrium. Such a stimulus sure does seem negative, but is our body’s response to it negative as well?
Let’s first consider the traditional view that suggests that stress is bad for you. Research in the past decades has found evidence that stress leads to both mental and physical health hazards. The Whitehall Study I conducted by Marmot (a Professor from UCL) et al. (1978) is an example of research that focuses on the negative effects of stress. This longitudinal study tracked the health conditions and mortality rates of 17,530 male civil servants aged 40-64 over 10 years. Participants were required to answer a questionnaire and undergo a medical examination. The researchers found that participants with a lower grade of employment had higher mortality rates than those with a higher grade of employment. The higher mortality rate observed resulted from coronary heart diseases and lower emotional stability. The questionnaires also showed that participants with lower socioeconomic status reported lower salary rates, strong job dissatisfaction and lack of control of job situations. These factors contributed to higher levels of stress. Thus, this study suggests that higher levels of stress correlates with poorer physical and mental health. These findings were replicated in the Whitehall Study II (1991) that Marmot et al. modified to include female participants.
So the Whitehall studies suggest that stress is bad for you. However, there is a question that Marmot et al. did not address — can your perception of stress change how stress affects your health? Keller et al. (2012) carried out a study to answer this question. First, they asked 30,000 adults in the United States to report their stress levels in the past year and whether they believed that stress was harmful for their health. They then tracked the participants for 8 years and used public death records to determine the mortality rates. They found that participants who believed that stress was harmful for their health had a 43% increased risk of premature death if they were stressed in the past year. However, those who did not believe so did not show an increased risk of death even if they were stressed in the past year. This suggests that one’s perception of stress can change how stress affects one’s health. If so, how can we change our perception about the apparent harmfulness of stress?
To answer this question, let’s first think about how your body responds to stressors. Imagine yourself staring at the exam paper that you have no idea about how to answer. How do you feel? Does your heart pound fast? Does your breathing become rapid? Now think about how you feel when you are energized and excited. The same physical responses occur. Therefore, if you change your mind-set to think that your body is actually preparing you to overcome the stressors when you feel pangs of anxiety, then stress could boost your confidence instead. In a study conducted by Jamieson, Nock and Mendes (2012), participants were either taught to rethink their stress response as beneficial or not before going through a social stress test. The findings showed that participants who learned to view stress beneficially were less anxious and more confident than the control group. They also obtained a healthier cardiovascular profile as their blood vessels stayed relaxed. Thus, this study suggests that if one simply perceives stress as helpful, the health hazards vanish and instead one’s confidence increases.
So, is stress really bad for you? The answer is not necessarily. If you view stress as a positive physical response, you are likely to overcome the stressor and experience none of the health risks that you might if you take the opposite view. It’s time for us to treat stress as a friend rather than a foe.
Source of image:
Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L., Maddox, T., Cheng, E., Creswell, P., & Witt, W. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677-684.
Jamieson, J., Nock, M., & Mendes, W. (2012). Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(3), 417-422.
Marmot, M., Rose, G., Shipley, M., & Hamilton, P. (1978). Employment grade and coronary heart disease in British civil servants. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 32(4), 244-249.
Marmot, M., Stansfeld, S., Patel, C., North, F., Head, J., White, I., . . . Smith, G. (1991). Health inequalities among British civil servants: The Whitehall II study. The Lancet, 1(8754), 1387-1393.