Can stress be good for you?

Yes it can – it all depends on your attitude and beliefs.

We all need a balance between stimulation and coping. Many of you will be familiar with the parabolic curve that shows that being under-stimulated can cause stress, as much as being overburdened. We need a level of challenge to perform at our best. So how can this increase, without leading to mental or physical health problems?

Two interesting phenomena from recent research support the idea that we can change our capacity to cope, with our mental attitude. If we start to believe that stress is positive, or even exciting, the body will believe us and, for example, keep the blood vessels more dilated. Secondly, when stress hits, oxytocin gets released, which we associate with positive social contact; and if we share and support others in stressful situations, our own stress impacts diminish.

I often use the example of a fly in my mindfulness training. If you hear a fly buzzing round the room, you can either say to yourself ‘aghh, damned fly’ or you might think ‘wow, that reminds me of that wonderful Italian holiday’. It’s the same fly, but a different response. Nothing about the fly is inherently unpleasant – it all depends on our experience and our choice of response.

If we re-frame what happens and tell ourselves a different story, that alone is a powerful stress management practice. The old adage that ‘we don’t have a problem, we have an opportunity’ (e.g. to be creative, to learn, to re-think) is actually true.