Are we harming ourselves by our beliefs about stress?

Stress is often seen as the enemy – something that can make us sick and cause us all sorts of health problems ranging from high blood pressure, to ulcers, to mental health problems and more.

And it’s true – chronic stress can lead to range of health problems if you don’t manage it. But managed stress can be of great benefit. It can boost motivation and productivity and help you get up off the couch to achieve your goals. but they key is, you need to manage it.

Just like a bridge needs the right amount of stress to do it’s job properly (and give you confidence to drive over it), you also need the right amount of stress to function at optimal performance.

A bridge needs the right level of tension and stress to do it’s job properly – and so do you

This is true physical stress – if we didn’t have any tension at all in our muscles we would fall over. And it is also true for mental stress as well.

While we are often aiming for happiness, bliss, harmony and smooth sailing through life, Viktor Frankl (the famous psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor) points out in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, it’s a ‘dangerous misconception’ to aim for equilibrium, homeostasis and a tensionless state. Rather he says:

“Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one ought still ought to accomplish….what [people] actually need is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal.

So stress is far from being the enemy we often think it is. In fact, according to Frankl’s view of the world, it’s not stress itself which is the problem – but the meaning we make of the stress.

It’s the attitude you take to stress that seems to make all the difference – and new research demonstrates this principle nicely showing that what you believe about stress, and whether it can help or harm you, has an important impact on your energy and wellbeing at work.

Stress mindsets and how they affect us

According to German researchers, a ‘stress mindset’ is the attitude you have to stress and how it could impact on your wellbeing.

Their research showed, people with a positive stress mindset believe that stress is useful, that it can enhance performance, will improve coping and that it can have a positive impact on achieving goals and energy levels at the end of a stressful day. In contrast, people with a negative stress mindset believe that stress is bad and harmful, and tend to have reduced coping skills and energy at the end of a high-stress day.

They felt that this finding was explained because people who believed stress could have a positive impact were more likely to proactively explore and engage coping strategies in anticipation of a busy day – which meant they got more done and felt more energised at the end of the day. Whereas people who believed stress was bad were more likely not to engage in proactive coping.

So what does this mean for you?

Without analysing the scientific merits of the study (which like all research has strengths and limitations) this research is an important demonstration of Viktor Frankl’s philosophy, that it’s our attitude that makes all the difference – it’s whether or not we say to ourselves: Is this stress I face something useful to me in some way? Or am I a helpless victim of stress and bound to get sick?

It also shows that in our unendiing pursuit of happiness, we may be developing unjealthy attitudes about the hard things in life. Which rather than breaking us, have the ability to ‘make us’ – and allow us to grow into our potential and achieve far more, with far greater satisfaction, than we have ever thought possible.

So over to you – what attitude are you going to take?

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