Working man resting in office

We are all familiar with workplace stress, whether it’s the little buzz at the back of your head that signifies an approaching deadline or the uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach as an important presentation looms.

Stress is a highly personalized phenomenon and can vary widely in identical situations for different people. One survey showed that having to complete paperwork was more stressful for many police officers than the dangers associated with pursuing criminals. A person’s genetic makeup can begin to explain why some of us thrive on the adrenaline rush a stressful situation can bring, whilst for others it can be harmful and trigger responses such as mental health issues.

The harmful effects of stress is a popular topic in the modern workplace, with employers and employees alike focusing on a multitude of ways to reduce daily stressors for a healthy workforce. However, research suggests that a little stress can actually be good for us.

Low-level stressors stimulate the production of brain chemicals that strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain, helping the mind to focus, and preparing the body for action. This mimics the primary mechanism by which exercise (a physical stressor) helps boost productivity and concentration. Exposure to stress is also crucial for developing the resilience that allows us to cope with unexpected and challenging situations in the future. A 2013 review entitled “Understanding resilience” draws parallels with the way exposure to germs boosts the immune system, concluding: “Stress inoculation is a form of immunity against later stressors, much in the same way that vaccines induce immunity against disease.”

It’s only when stress is experienced over a prolonged period of time, or when we feel we’re no longer in control of a situation, that it becomes chronic and can negatively affect our health and wellbeing. This suggests that the way that we perceive stress can actually determine its effects. Some psychologists such as Kelly McGonigal go as far to say that the harmful effects of stress may be a consequence of our perception that stress is bad for our health.

A previous study of over 29,000 people reporting to have high levels of stress and who believed stress had a large impact on their health had a 43% increased risk of mortality. On the other hand, those that experienced a lot of stress but did not perceive its effects as negative were amongst the least likely to experience health issues, as compared to all other participants in the study. This may sound extreme but really illustrates how changing our stress mindset could be key in overcoming the negative effects of stress.

“When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress,” says McGonigal. “So rather than try to slow your pounding heart, you can view it as your body giving you energy, preparing you to meet the imminent challenge.”

By acknowledging the feelings and thoughts that we have, and gently redirecting our attention to the positive, we can lessen the negative effects we experience. By remembering that our response is just our bodies preparing us for action can help to reframe our outlook on stress from threat to opportunity, allowing us to make better choices. Easy to say, but with the demands of the modern world seemingly higher than ever it can seem like a mammoth task to change your mindset at the point of crisis. Here are some tips that will help you begin to shape a positive stress mindset:

1. Rise to the challenge

By believing we have the resources to overcome stressful events (or that we can connect with supportive people who can help us), we can move from a threat response to a challenge response, using the energy boost to help us to rise to the challenge.

2. Use stress as an opportunity to learn

Try to remember that something stressful is an opportunity to be embraced as may provide development and lead to achievement. This can then boost motivation for a difficult task and give you the focus you need to complete it. As T.S Eliot famously said, “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?

3. Show yourself compassion

We are generally much harder on ourselves than others may be. So, if you do trip up a little when facing a challenge, forgive yourself, use the opportunity to learn, and then make the decision to move on rather than linger on the pitfall.

4. Change your relationship with hassles.

The hundreds of mini-stressors (like emails or chores) we experience every day can feel threatening or overwhelming – especially when clustered together. Often it’s because we see them as intrusions that get in the way of what we’re doing or want to be doing. Try to find the positive in these, for example whilst sitting in traffic, use this as an opportunity to think about your plan for the next day.

This is not to say we should induce stress in our lives. If you can reduce the strains of your day-to-day life, then do, but for the things you can’t change, it’s reassuring to know that a shift in perspective can make a significant difference to our stress levels. It might take a bit of practice, but it is possible to re-frame demanding situations to help us better cope with challenges, improving our physical and mental wellbeing.

Looking for other ways to improve your workplace wellbeing? See our blog on Five Ways to Improve Your Mental Health at Work.