Study Shows How to Reframe Stress and Use It to Your Advantage


Stress reappraisal has been studied by scientists for a long time. New research shows that it works — and that stress might be beneficial rather than harmful.

Traditional health advice may urge us to reduce stress as much as feasible. But, according to experts, this isn’t the case.

Students trained to consider stress as a coping technique scored better on arithmetic examinations than students told to keep stress out of their minds, according to a study published this year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. The researchers behind the study claim that it adds to the growing body of evidence showing stress can be a catalyst for success rather than a deterrent.

we are typically told stress is a bad thing, notes the lead researcher Jeremy Jamieson, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology and the principal investigator of the Social Stress Lab at the University of Rochester in New York.

While persistent long-term or chronic stress is harmful to our health, our bodies’ natural stress reaction can be beneficial to our health and well-being. It’s actually a resource, Dr. Jamieson notes. It’s something that’s literally steeling your ability to accomplish your tasks.

Stress is the body’s natural response to changes in the environment that it sees as difficult. To help your body meet the challenge it perceives (whether it’s escaping a burning building or kicking yourself into high gear because you’re running late for an important meeting), our stress response triggers a series of physical and mental processes (your heart starts to beat faster, you feel more energized, and you become more alert, among other effects).

That’s why, rather than it being a hindrance, stress can motivate you to perform better. All of these changes improve your body’s response time.

We’re trying to move you out of the perspective that stress is this awful thing that’s causing you harm, says Jamieson.

Instead, his team is developing techniques to help people reframe their perceptions of stress so that they may utilize it to overcome the numerous life problems. Psychologists call this “cognitive reframing” – and it’s a technique that’s been well-studied.

A growing body of evidence suggests that teaching people the stress benefits can improve stress responses, enhance performance, and boost well-being, according to a review article published in February 2020 in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion (Jamieson is a coauthor).

Jamieson and his colleagues’ current study adds to the body of evidence that cognitive reframing works by putting the theory to the test in the face of a real-world stressor: math exams.

Seeing stress as a tool helped students test better

Researchers gave one group of 339 community college students a short text explaining what goes on in their body when they’re under stress and why it can help improve their performance in challenging situations if they consider it a coping technique instead of an impediment (stress reappraisal). The other group read a couple of paragraphs on the stress response, but with a recommendation to ignore any stress they might have. The groups were later asked to describe how the advice might help with their performance on exams.

The researchers watched the students’ arithmetic test scores over the course of a semester, had them answer questionnaires about their anxiety levels before exams, and collected saliva samples to detect levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The group who read about stress reappraisal did better on exams, had reduced math anxiety and even lower cortisol levels than the group that was taught to keep stress out of their minds while taking tests throughout the semester.

Stress is only harmful if you believe you don’t have the means to deal with. You’re more inclined to regard a difficult circumstance as a challenge if you think of stress as a tool, according to Sarah Pressman, PhD, a researcher at the University of California in Irvine who studies the relationship between positive emotions and health.

Can you reframe all stress to work in your favor?

These approaches are most effective right before a performance situation, such as academic testing or public speaking, because you have the opportunity to see your stress response as beneficial before responding to the challenge.

This strategy is unlikely to work if you’re having a panic attack, according to Jamieson. In such situations, the stress is no longer functional because you’ve already responded to the challenge. According to the American Psychological Association, cognitive reframing is used as a therapy for panic attacks before they happen, not during them.

Because the study was limited to academic stress, Jamieson says he doesn’t know if these strategies would work as effectively for students dealing with other pressures like social ones. His group, on the other hand, is planning research that will look at mindset strategies and stress reappraisal in a wider context.

Beyond changes in stress hormone levels, Pressman says it would be intriguing to explore other signs of physical stress response.

Another intriguing result from the study, she adds, is that the control group, who were told to disregard stress, appeared to perform poorly over time, even to a greater extent than the intervention group. Perhaps this stress avoidance stuff is actually extremely terrible. We shouldn’t urge people not to think about stress, she adds.

However, Jamieson points out that an earlier study he coauthored, which was also published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, found no difference in test performance between people who were advised to ignore stress and those who were told nothing at all. According to him, the control group’s academic performance was identical to that of students in previous semesters.

How you can view stress as a tool rather than a detriment

Here’s how to reframe worry as something constructive if you’re nervous about an impending event where you’ll need to perform in some capacity, such as a job presentation or a wedding toast.

  1. Unlearn “stress is bad”

Jamieson and his colleagues will look at techniques for unlearning the “stress is bad” perspective in their next research. When was the last time you were genuinely enthused about something? That is, in fact, your work-related stress reaction. Many pleasant emotional experiences, such as excitement, are actually stress responses, he argues.

  1. Notice when stress shows up

Darlene Mininni, MD, advises to be conscious of what stresses you out and how it shows up for you. She recommends paying attention to how your body reacts to stress in specific ways. (They can be both psychological and physical.) “When I’m stressed, I notice that my jaw clenches.” My heart is hammering in my chest. She says, “I’m sweating.” this is stress response at work.

  1. Change the message

Once you’ve identified the tension, tell yourself that this is a natural and even beneficial reaction. Perhaps this is a sign that your body is genuinely supplying you with energy, Dr. Mininni advises.

  1. Plan ahead

Mininni adds that planning ahead could also be of great help. While we never know what life may throw at us, many of us have a clear sense of the types of situations that cause us to become stressed. Consider what you’ve said or tried in the past that didn’t work and how you’ll handle it differently in the future.

  1. Practice techniques to keep stress under control

Remember that stress becomes damaging when you perceive your body’s stress response to be greater than the actual stressor. Some people may benefit from practicing ways to reduce the volume and intensity of their stress reaction, such as deep breathing techniques, before confronting the task at hand. Figure out what works best for you.

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I’m Imad, the content creator and online marketing strategist behind The Guemmah Freelance Hub. My mission is to help more freelancers grow themselves, their business, and their profits.

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