Stop stress from ruining your health

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Our attitudes to stress and the mechanisms we adopt to deal with it can have a dramatic impact on how that stress affects us, our performance and our health.

British entrepreneur Richard Branson has said that if we deal with pressure positively and proactively, that pressure actually can help to improve our performance.

This idea is backed up by the World Health Organization, which distinguishes pressure and stress. It says:

pressure at the workplace is unavoidable due to the demands of the contemporary work environment. Pressure perceived as acceptable by an individual may even keep workers alert, motivated, able to work and learn, depending on the available resources characteristics. However, when that pressure becomes excessive or otherwise unmanageable it leads to stress.

How stress affects your health

The need to change the way we perceive stress was discussed by Kelly McGonical in a TED talk. She referred to a study that tracked 30,000 US adults over eight years. The participants were first asked two questions; “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” and “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?

After tracking the death rates of the 30,000 participants over the next eight years, the study found that those who reported high levels of stress and also believed that stress is harmful to your health had a 43% increased risk of dying.

However, those who said high levels of stress and did not think it was dangerous to them had the lowest death rates out of all participants, even those reporting low levels of stress.

This suggests that the real threat is the way you manage stress, rather than the stress itself.

Stress effects on the body

The way you think about stress also changes the way it affects your body.

If you can think about signs of stress – such as an elevated heart rate and sweating – as simply the way your body is preparing itself for the situation you are in you can mitigate those effects.

A raised heart rate means that your brain and muscles are receiving more oxygen, so they are better prepared to think and react faster, for example.

When the participants of another study who were trained to think this way went into a stressful situation, they did not experience constricted blood vessels as a response to stress; their mindset had changed their physical stress response.

More aware, more confident in stressful situations

When you think this way, you are less likely to become anxious in stressful situations; making you feel more confident so that you handle the situation better.

In the long term, the stressful situations you face will have far fewer adverse effects on your health.

So, if pressure is unavoidable in your life, there may be ways for you to make it your friend rather than your enemy.

Next time you have to deliver a presentation to your boss or face any other stressful situation at work, imagine that you’re the pressure you feel is what is getting you through and helping you to perform, rather than pushing you to fail.

Original post published in May 2016.