Stress has had a bad reputation for years, but the tide is turning. Scientific research and innovative thinkers say we can all benefit from stress, once we figure out how to use it in our favour.
Gina Di Giulio, PhD, Director of Psychology, says stress is a response that the body undergoes to a change in the environment.
“Good or healthy stress is motivating. That big adrenaline charge actually helps you to perform better. Bad or unhealthy stress causes meaningful impairment in your life. It leads to a decrease in performance,” says Dr. Di Giulio. “Stress is part of life, we can’t avoid it. But we can learn to cope with that stress in a helpful way when it is triggered in our lives.”
Embrace stress as a helpful response
Step one, according to Stanford Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, is to embrace stress as a helpful response (it’s the body’s way of getting us through a temporary acute situation) rather than something to be avoided. Her research found that how we think about stress impacts our physiological response to it and ultimately our long-term health outcomes. She compared people with similar amounts of self-reported stress. The group that viewed their stress response as helpful had fewer heart attacks and less health risks than the group that interpreted their stress as harmful and something to be pushed away or avoided.
Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy, PhD, earned her insights into stress after she suffered and recovered from a serious head injury. Her research on neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance led to the popularization of “power posing.” Cuddy found that when research participants struck a powerful pose – back straight, chest lifted and arms open or on their hips – they not only felt more confident, their physiology and behaviour choices reflected this as well.
High-power poses or body language decreased the stress hormone cortisol by about 25 percent and increased testosterone by about 19 percent for both men and women. Low-power poses trended the opposite levels. This research has led many to practise the “wonder woman” and “victory” poses before interviews, presentations or other situations requiring power.
Create workplace wellness
Beyond faking it until we make it with body language, Dr. Di Giulio recommends responding to emails during scheduled times only and taking a proper lunch break (without looking at your phone).
Dr. Di Giulio also encourages employers to foster workplace wellness with two-way communication and feedback so employees feel comfortable talking about their needs. She says a work culture where individuals feel valued goes a long way in supporting healthy stress over unhealthy stress.
Dr. Gina DiGiulio is Director of Psychology at Medcan. She has a PhD from University of Ottawa and a Masters in Law (LLM – Health Specialization) from Osgoode Hall. Her clinical practice focuses on CBT, individual adult therapy and evidence-based treatment strategies for weight management and behaviour modification, as well as a wide range of conditions.