What actually is stress?  Stress can be defined as a psychological and physiological reaction caused by a perceived lack of resources; it is also the feeling we get when something we care about is under threat, and it is actually our body’s way of giving us the ability to do something about that threat.  We do not get stressed about something we don’t care about – stress and meaning are, in fact, inextricably linked; our stress is a reflection of our values.

Stress is a part of life. It’s vital to us – stress creates motivation and enables us to adapt to deal with new experiences. The more we can adapt our responses, the less rigid we are in our thinking. If we are very rigid in our thoughts and beliefs, so that something “has to” be a certain way, then we will find it stressful if things are not the way we want or expect them to be. The more flexible we can become in our thinking, therefore, the less negative stress we will experience and the more peaceful we will become.

Events or circumstances are not actually stressful in themselves – it is our own personal perception of the event in that moment that makes us feel stressed or not; which is why some people are stressed about certain things (going to the dentist, for example) and others are not.  Stress is therefore a subjective response to a given situation.  If an individual believes they cannot cope or perceives they have a lack of personal resources, then they will experience a “fight or flight” threat stress response. 

When we are regularly living and working in a “fight or flight” state, our ability to cope with day to day life can become compromised and we can end up feeling overwhelmed and reacting badly in our interactions with other people. We react this way because, in that moment, we believe we have no choice in our behaviour; our resources of calm and consideration appear to have deserted us and left us with negative emotions such as anger, fear or overwhelm as our only way of being.

Understanding how our body’s stress response can actually assist us to deal with the situation can be very helpful… What if stress is not actually bad for us?  What if it is, in fact, a resource in itself?  Stress is far more than just “fight or flight” – it is a biologically appropriate response to a given situation.  Depending on the ratio of hormones our bodies produce, we actually have a variety of different stress responses, each supporting a different coping strategy.

Our three main stress responses are:

  • Fight/Flight/Freeze – when our survival is on the line.  Higher levels of Cortisol mobilise energy and promote self-survival behaviours.
  • Challenge – a focused and not fearful state which gives us access to our mental and physical resources.  Higher levels of the neurosteroid DHEA motivate action, increase self-confidence and promote learning.
  • Tend and Befriend – enhances empathy and motivates our connection with others.  Higher levels of Oxytocin increase courage and strengthen pro-social behaviour.

Recent research has indicated that the way we think about stress itself has an impact on our physiology.  If we view stress as a completely toxic state, then everything that engenders that state becomes something to be avoided.  However, if we choose to accept that there is a connection between stress and meaning, then it can help us change our mindset and increase our self-belief in our ability to cope with the challenges of life. 

Instead of believing stress is bad for us, if we believe that it is our body’s way of preparing us for the challenge ahead, this has actually been shown to positively affect the physiology of the stress response; changing a “fight/flight” response into a healthier “challenge” response.  In other words, research suggests that stress is only bad for us when we believe it is. 

Changing the perception of the stress response from something that is harmful into something that is a positive resource could have profound implications for health and wellbeing.  Whilst the everyday stressors may remain, believing the stress response to actually be beneficial to long-term health could potentially create a much reduced incidence of stress-related physical and psychological symptoms.

1.  Lipton, B.H., 2008. ‘The Biology of Belief.’ USA: Hay House.
2. McGonigall, K., 2015. ‘The Upside of Stress.’ UK: Penguin Random House.
3. Crum, A.J., Salovey, P., Achor, S., 2013. ‘Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(4), 716-33.

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