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Stress: what is it good for?

By Lisa van de Geyn

Turns out it’s good for a few things. If you learn to control it, stress can be a boon, not a burden.

It’s tax season but for Gwyneth James, it might as well be Christmas.

Her small but busy firm, Cody & James Chartered Professional Accountants in Peterborough, Ont., is abuzz as she and her partner and their staff diligently prepare tax returns and clack away at their keyboards. James, a self-confessed workaholic, flies around the office, feeding off the energy of her hardworking team while chatting with clients she only sees at this hectic time of year.

On days like today — during the intensely fast and furious month of April — James pegs her stress level at a solid seven out of 10 (one being a stress master, 10 being super strained). Her main stressors are typical: meeting deadlines, billing, filing reviews and taking care of HR management, plus finding enough time to keep up on current rules. What’s perhaps unique about James is that she generally doesn’t fret too much when she’s under pressure. “It’s a positive stressor. I am much more effective when I’m busy. When I’m doing things that I know I’m good at, I’m at my best and that confidence attracts clients,” she says.

Still, she’s not immune to the impact that the weight of running her business can have. Yes, it’s her modus operandi to welcome stress with a smile, but she admits that overseeing staff and ensuring everyone is working at the same level of accuracy is her biggest stressor and one of the hardest parts of owning an accounting firm. “Knowing that other people’s performance reflects your business — your baby, your future earnings — is scary.” In times of great pressure, James says she does her best to stay positive, “until I almost fool myself that it’s all OK.” It’s a technique she’s dubbed “doing the duck” — she floats serenely on the water but paddles furiously underneath.

There’s no getting around it: stress — we’re talking positive and negative here — should have been included in that old adage because it is, without a doubt, as certain as death and (pun intended) taxes. And there isn’t a professional out there who hasn’t felt the effects of stress of the negative variety.

At its worst, stress does a number on both our productivity and our overall health. The studies are seemingly endless: stress causes physical issues, such as headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, chest pain and cardiovascular problems, stomach upset, lowered sex drive and sleep troubles; it hampers our mental state, causing restlessness, sadness (sometimes depression), irritability, a lack of concentration and an all-encompassing overwhelming feeling that can become debilitating; and it can make us act out — think angry outbursts, abuse of alcohol or drugs, overeating or under-eating and withdrawing from social activities that we once enjoyed.

The top health and productivity concern

Of course, stress can also wreak havoc on the old nine to five, causing, among other issues, low productivity, crummy employee engagement, shoddy work habits and higher rates of absenteeism — all bottom-line guzzlers. According to the Staying@Work survey of 111 Canadian employers, and the 2015/2016 Global Benefits Attitudes survey of more than 2,000 employees (both conducted by Willis Towers Watson, a global advisory, broking and solutions company), 85% of Canadian employers believe stress is their “top health and productivity concern” when it comes to their business. Employers said the key four workplace stressors were lack of work/life balance, excessive organizational change, inadequate staffing and permeating technology connections and advances that “make employees feel that they are always on the job.” Employees, on the other hand, listed the stressors in a different order, citing inadequate staffing, low pay, excessive amount of organizational change and company culture as the greatest reasons for their collective tension, not to mention “insufficient work/life balance,” including excessive workloads and long hours, which also made an appearance in the top 10.

Here’s the thing: we may not want to admit it, but we actually need stress. It’s a key part of how humans have evolved — it’s our stress response that makes us flee, fight or freeze when faced with danger. It can make us act faster, think more clearly and it’s ultimately what has kept us alive. (Presumably, humans would have been wiped out by predators if not for stress.) “Stress is necessary — we wouldn’t accomplish much without it,” adds James Meurs, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. “It helps us achieve what we didn’t think we could do.”

Good stress

Which is a seamless segue to this thought: stress doesn’t always have to be evil. And most folks don’t realize it, but we’ve all experienced some sort of “good” stress — planning a wedding, having a baby, buying our first home, going on vacation or getting promoted at the office — even though we don’t give it much credence.

In a TED Talk she gave in 2013, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University and author of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It, brought up this question: “Can changing how you think about stress make you healthier? And here the science says yes. When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.”

It’s a fascinating approach that’s garnering more research and attention. A study published in the journal Health Psychology in 2012 looked at how nearly 30,000 participants experienced and perceived the effects of stress on their health and mortality. Results showed that people who reported high stress and felt stress negatively affected their health had a 43% increase in the risk of premature death, while those who said they experienced high stress but didn’t believe it was adversely affecting them were at the lowest risk of dying.

A 2011 study by researchers from Harvard and the University of California, San Francisco, dubbed the “social stress test,” illustrates how changing your mindset when faced with stress, and seeing physiological signs of stress as simply the body’s way of preparing to meet a challenge, can work wonders. Here’s what happened: participants were told they’d have to give a five-minute videotaped speech to two evaluators. During their speech, the evaluators provided nothing but negative feedback (crossed arms, frowning, furrowed brows, etc.). After their speeches, participants had to perform an impromptu math test — starting at 996, they were asked to count backwards in intervals of seven. Again, the evaluators offered rather unconstructive reactions. Participants who tried to see the physical symptoms of stress (faster breathing, quicker-beating heart) as simply helpful steps toward enhancing their performance reported they were less stressed and more confident. In this scenario, participants’ blood vessels stayed relaxed, even though their heart was pounding. “This is a much healthier cardiovascular profile. It actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage,” said McGonigal in her TED Talk. “Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90s. And this is really what the new science of stress reveals — that how you think about stress matters.”

Lieke ten Brummelhuis is an assistant professor of management and organization studies at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business in Burnaby, BC. She agrees that we should consider whether we are experiencing a good form of stress, called “eustress,” which can be applied to the workplace. Eustress (the opposite of distress) not only has a beneficial effect on your health, it also boosts motivation and performance. Ten Brummelhuis says eustress is “the result of a balanced combination between challenging tasks, whereby you have enough resources to complete the tasks.” So, she says, setting the bar high will motivate you, and meeting short deadlines can be challenging in a positive way, as long as you have sufficient resources to deal with the task at hand. “Another important note is that eustress is only good when the employee has enough time after the task to recover. You can’t keep functioning at the highest capacity at all times,” she says. “A challenging deadline could be motivating and fun, as long as you take a breather after.” Working on a demanding or difficult project can be stressful, but when we have successfully met our goal, we’ll be more confident, which will help us see the stress in a much better light next time around.

Katrina Kowalski, a financial analyst at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario in Toronto, has invested time and energy in viewing her work-related stress as helpful instead of harmful. “I experience positive stressors when I’m assigned a task outside of my expertise or regular routine, such as an ad-hoc request. It takes me outside of my comfort zone and often has me looking at another side of the company,” she says. “It drives me to organize and focus better.”

Tools to harness your stress

In studies done on rats, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found that stress can keep the brain alert, improve memory and boost performance. When they exposed rats to stressful events (being restrained for a few hours, which raised their levels of the stress hormone corticosterone), they found that stem cells in the rats’ brains proliferated into new nerve cells that, when they matured two weeks later, enhanced the rats’ mental performance. One of the study’s co-authors attributed the results to “intermittent stressful events” that keep the brain more alert; “and you perform better when you are alert,” she told Berkeley News.

If it works for rats, could it work for us? Could we use anxiety to our advantage? The experts collectively agree that it’s possible to change course and retrain our thinking and beliefs when it comes to dealing with stress. Here’s how they suggest we use it as a tool to harness its benefits.

Check your expectations. Meurs agrees we have the opportunity for learning and growth when we experience stress, and it starts with considering our expectations going into an experience. “Let’s say you have a difficult client who you’re auditing. You have history with this client and know that in prior years, he has been especially hard to deal with. If you think it will be awful to deal with him this time, you’ll see the experience as a threat,” says Meurs. “But knowing in the past you’ve persevered, if you go in with the expectation of a positive outcome this time around, you’ll calm down and your stress levels will be more manageable, giving you the ability to be more creative, innovative and open to possibilities — all helpful to reaching your goal of successfully dealing with this tough client.”

Add “I feel excited” to your vocabulary. Kowalski admits she’s not a huge fan of speaking in front of crowds. “Even speaking at a meeting can make me nervous when I’m presenting to a superior, for example,” she says. When Kowalski finds herself in this situation, it’s highly likely she’s feeling the symptoms of stress, including butterflies in her stomach, a racing pulse, faster breath and perhaps a flushed face. Ironically, these symptoms aren’t just attributed to stress — they’re the same symptoms we feel when we’re excited. “Before a stressful meeting, conversation or presentation, say the words, ‘I feel excited’ out loud to yourself,” suggests psychologist Ian Robertson in his book, The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper. So if Kowalski saw her pre-speaking jitters as anticipation instead of apprehension and said those three little words, she could essentially change the way her brain interprets the scenario and perform better, confirms a 2013 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Embrace challenge. “Let’s say I have to mark 300 exams in four hours,” says ten Brummelhuis. “There is no way that I can do this by myself. Hence, I ask for support from the business school and I get four teaching assistants who help me mark my exams. If I would not have asked for help, I would have seen this task as a threat because it is not feasible to finish this in time.” Ten Brummelhuis says that instead of seeing it as a completely undoable job, she’d now be able to take the challenge knowing, with help, she can get her marking done, which tweaks her thinking from stress to eustress. She adds, “This positive outlook is partially affected by the context (or how many resources are available) and partially by personality (how optimistic and resilient I am in general).”

See the bigger picture. Alexandra Spinner, a tax partner at Crowe Soberman in Toronto, says she manages her stress by looking at and organizing her time not in hours or weeks, but in months or sometimes quarters. “For example, I know that the months of March and April are extremely busy in the office. I recognize that I will not be able to spend as much time with my family in these months as I otherwise would. I balance this by recognizing that September and December are times that are busy at home, whether it is back-to-school or holiday time, and I give myself permission to have lighter hours in the office those months,” she says. The result of spending time to figure out the cyclicality of her busy work schedule and organize her life accordingly has, she says, allowed her to keep much of the negative stress she used to incur at bay.

Find your Goldilocks Zone. Robertson says norepinephrine, which is released in response to stress, has a “Goldilocks Zone.” This basically means that if levels of the hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter (which, Robertson says, in moderate doses can help your brain function better) are too low or too high, the brain underperforms. When you’re in the “sweet spot,” the different parts of the brain communicate better with one another and you feel more alert and better able to execute stressful tasks. One way to get in the Goldilocks Zone and boost your performance at work is to, quite simply, breathe. “Breathe in for a count of five, and out for five,” Robertson writes. “You can control norepinephrine levels in your brain by the way you breathe. And because norepinephrine is a key player in the ‘fight or flight’ response, you can also control your anxiety and stress using breathing.”

Perk up your point of view. A study published in 2013 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology studied the “stress mindsets” of nearly 400 employees of a large international financial institution in the US that was going through a “dramatic” downsizing and restructuring. It found that employees who had “stress-is-enhancing” mindsets, as opposed to “stress-is-debilitating” mindsets, had greater life satisfaction and health, and better overall work performance.

Kowalski says changing the way she views stress has ultimately changed the way she works. “I [now] use stress to motivate myself to learn something new, to grow, to stay organized. I control it by trying to relax and think, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?’ ” To keep up her positive attitude, she does yoga once a week, books all of her vacation time and gets away from her desk at lunch. Seeing stress as a boon, not as a burden, has given her a “huge boost of confidence to know I’ve overcome stressful situations. I feel I can handle more [now] because I experienced stress and I survived.”