We all know that stress is bad for your health—the government’s been telling us so literally since the 1970s. It’s true: studies show that high levels of stress put you at risk for anxiety, depression, heart disease, and weight gain, in addition to sleep disturbances and an impaired ability to focus.
If stress is psychological, how can it affect your physical health? The reason is that the body responds to stressful situations by releasing adrenaline, glucocorticoids, and other stress hormones that increase your heart rate, give you extra energy, and help you deal with emergencies. But if your body finds itself in this “fight-or-flight” mode all the time, the chronic presence of stress hormones can damage the heart, increase the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure, and inhibit the release of normal hormones. “Stress is not a state of mind,” explains neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky. “It’s measurable and dangerous, and humans can’t seem to find their off-switch”.
The traditional strategy for mitigating these health risks is to reframe stressful situations (“Giving a talk in front of 2,000 people isn’t so bad!”) or remove stressors (by finding a less stressful job, for example). But a certain amount of stress is inevitable, and many jobs put employees under high levels of stress by their very nature. So what can we do to protect our health?
A new set of studies suggests that how you perceive stress may be just as important as how much stress you have.
In one study, researchers examined a survey of more than 28,000 people, correlating survey answers with death records to investigate the relationships between stress, health, and the perception that stress affects health. They found that people who reported experiencing “a lot of stress” had a greater risk of dying—but this was true only for those who believed that stress was having a big impact on their health. Among those who believed that stress wasn’t impacting them, there was no relationship between stress and premature death. The researchers concluded that people who have a lot of stress in their lives are at greater risk for premature mortality if they also perceive that stress affects their health.
But again, how can perceptions in your mind have an effect on whether stress damages your health? Researchers believe the answer has to do with something called “construal”—the way you cognitively interpret a situation.
Imagine you’re at the top of a steep ski slope, looking down at an almost vertical drop. Your body’s response to being there will depend on how well you ski. If you’ve never skied before, you’re probably terrified; if you’re an expert skier, you might find the situation thrilling and exhilarating.
If you’re in a difficult situation but you feel confident you have what it takes to handle it, you’ll perceive it as a challenge—which triggers positive physiological effects. But if you feel like you’re in over your head, you’ll view the same situation as a threat—and the body’s threat response impairs decision-making and is associated with brain aging, cognitive decline, and heart disease.
So the question is, can changing your own response to stressful situations improve your health? Research suggests the answer may be yes. In one study, participants completed a “stressful public speaking task” while their cardiovascular responses were monitored, delivering a 5-minute speech on camera while researchers sat there furrowing their brows, crossing their arms, and frowning.
But not all participants were prepared in the same way. One group was told that the body’s response to stress evolved to help us navigate difficult experiences, and that increased arousal actually helps your performance in stressful situations. The other group was not.
The results showed that reframing arousal as being performance-enhancing and helpful had benefits both physiological and cognitive. Participants in the reappraisal group exhibited less tendency to focus on the negative, better recall of what resources they had at their disposal, and improved cardiovascular functioning. The real solution to managing stress, it seems, may be to target the stress response itself.
1. Heminway, J. (2008). Stress—portrait of a killer. National Geographic.
2. Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L., Maddox, T., Cheng, E., Creswell, P., & Witt, W. (2011). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health psychology: official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 31, 677–84.
3. Jamieson, J.P., Nock, M.K., Mendes, & Berry, W. (2012). Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 417-422.