Here’s an unsettling thought: stress is inescapable. Coming to a sudden halt on the side of a motorway en route to a career-changing interview, or fighting against the clock to clean Nutella off a toddler’s bridesmaid dress an hour before your sister’s wedding is never going to be pleasant.
But life’s pressures are not always negative. While intense, prolonged, stress undeniably raises the risk of serious health problems, world-leading neuroscientist Professor Ian Robertson argues in his latest book, The Stress Test, that life’s pressures can in fact help us to flourish, with the help of the body’s complex chemical processes. Stress can help to motivate us, and even strengthen the brain.
Peter Clough, professor of psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, agrees, and says that we have become “stress-phobic” as a society, by inextricably connecting it to anxiety. In reality, most of us seek out more pressurised lives – chasing pay rises, promotions, and raising families – to reap the emotional benefits of satisfaction.
Launching his discussion with the words of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche – “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” – Robertson, professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin, unpicks why some of us struggle to cope with stressful situations that others appear to withstand with relative ease. This is partly down to our physical, neurological and environmental differences, which change what pushes our buttons. Some find repetitive tasks too much to bear, while others balk at strict deadlines and large workloads. In the end, stress itself is not the issue, but how we deal with it.
In The Stress Test, Professor Robertson extinguishes the idea that our brains are “hard wired” from birth, and instead suggests that our thoughts and emotional experiences reshape the organ by turning genes on and off.
“We have between our ears the most complex entity in the known universe and the amazing fact about it is that our brains can self-programme. We have the ability to change not only the functioning of our brains, but the very chemistry and structure of them by the way we use them,” he says.
Inside our brains are two competing mechanisms. The “approach” system on the left front part encourages us to seek rewards and triggers the release of anxiety-tackling dopamine. The “avoidance” area at the right front part of the brain meanwhile avoids punishment, prompting the release of noradrenaline, which is linked to the “fight or flight” response. Balancing the two creates the perfect cocktail of chemicals to transform stress from debilitating into brain-boosting, with those who are most in control of their emotions best equipped to exploit this.
Research shows, for example, that the stress caused by plunging your hand into ice-cold water can help with remembering a list of words, thanks to the release of cortisol and noradrenaline.
“The first step is that you have to believe that you have control,” says Professor Roberston, citing the “fixed” and “growth” mind-set concept pioneered by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Those with a fixed mindset, for example, view their skills rigidly while those who allow themselves to repeatedly practise and fail until they improve can cultivate a range of talents.
Demonstrating control over your thoughts – even for a few seconds – is the second step. With perserverance, this can gradually extend for minutes, hours, days, and years.
This all seems rather abstract. But Professor Robertson is emphatic that there are countless methods and techniques individuals can use to address their stress. Some, like cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), are relatively new, while others, such as meditation and mindfulness, have been practised for centuries. A recent study showed that, like CBT, diligently practising meditaton can help to positively re-structure the brain.
For others, allotting “worry time” in their schedule can block racing thoughts from disturbing our days, suggests Professor Robertson.
Changing one’s attitude towards pressures is also important. A 2007 study at Harvard found that chambermaids who regarded their work in hotels as exercise were able to lose weight and experience a drop in blood pressure.
Professor Clough, meanwhile, simply suggests treating yourself as you would your best friend: “If your best friend does something wrong, you pick them up, you’re realistic, but you don’t give them a beating. You say ‘oops that wasn't your best moment, but…’ If we aren't our own best friends then we struggle in a fairly demanding world.”
It’s not just all in the mind, either. Adopting a ‘power stance’ – with your body outstretched – before a nerve-wracking situation, or squeezing a stress ball in the right hand can temporarily boost mood and confidence.
But this attitude towards stress could easily be exploited at a time when it is easier than ever for our jobs to bleed into our personal lives. Should burnt-out employees quit complaining and just toughen up?
Professor Robertson is adamant that this is not the intention of his book, and warns against the breakdown of the working week and the pollution of private time by work.
“Any ideas can be abused by unscrupulous people and this one is no different. Moderate stress can be beneficial, severe stress not. Most people with mental illness suffer extreme stress and ‘just getting over it’ is not and should not be an option.”
Khadija Abdelhamid, a public speaker and entrepreneur from Wembley, London, knows firsthand that “snapping out of it” is not possible. Now 25, stress debilitated her teen years, exacerbated her depression and cast her into a cycle of panic attacks.
However, she agrees that Professor Roberston’s approach is the right one, and she copes by listening to calming music, using tips learned from her therapist, and piecing apart her problems when she feels relaxed.
“I felt like I lived in a box where I always cared about how everyone perceived me, but I never pointed the finger and looked at me and what I am doing for myself instead," she says.
Professor Clough concurs, and believes that Professor Robertson’s findings should encourage bosses to cater jobs to employees, rather than load them with more work.
“Throwing people in the deep end and putting them under pressure just isn't sensible or effective, it’s destructive," he says, adding that stepping out of your comfort zone is important, but that it should be done sensibly, carefully, and gradually.
Perhaps “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” is a little extreme, but Professor Robertson’s message is clear. “Everyone can learn to control their emotions – not completely, not always – but everyone, absolutely everyone, can learn to do this better.”
The Stress Test by Professor Ian Robertson is out now.
The Stress Test
Do you See Stress as a Threat or a Challenge? Take Professor Robertson's quiz to find out.
1. When you feel under pressure from too many directions, do you:
a. ..with pounding heart and churning stomach, worry about the effects the stress is having on you.
b. ..plead your case on Facebook
c. ..focus single-mindedly on just the next small goal and don’t think about all the bigger tasks and goals.
2. You are about to give an important presentation about which you feel nervous, do you:
a. Notice your dry mouth, sweaty hands and beating heart and think I feel anxious.
b. Think about how happy you will feel when it is over.
c. Feel your dry mouth, sweaty hands and beating heart and think I feel excited.
3. It’s Monday 3 pm at work and you are feeling jaded and bored, do you:
a. Browse some YouTube videos.
b. Fill in an expense claim.
c. Stretch, go for a fast five minute walk and drink a shot of coffee.
4. Your boss just told you that you aren’t the star she thought you were when she recruited you. Do you:
a. Feel miserable and anxious and start looking for a new job.
b. Message your partner to meet for a drink after work.
c. Go for a coffee make an honest list of your achievements, and think “she’s wrong – what can I learn from this?”
5. Your life feels a bit stalled and you are wading through mud with not much to look forward to. Do you:
a. Go for a good few drinks to drown your sorrows.
c. Grit your teeth, square your shoulders and think “something’s around the corner”.
6. A colleague makes a snide, demeaning remark about you, do you think:
a. He’s right – I’m no use.
b. I have to get out of this place.
c. I am proud of myself for not rising to the bait. He’ll get his come-uppance.
7. You feel jaded and don’t seem to be making much headway in life. Do you:
a. Shrug your shoulders, shed a tear and resign yourself to your lot in life.
b. Check what’s on television tonight.
c. Set a small, achievable goal – any goal – for yourself and make a plan exactly when and how you are going to do it.
8. You’re a nervous wreck waiting for the interview or appraisal. Do you:
a. Keep sipping from your water bottle and wishing for the meeting to be over.
b. Surf the internet on your smartphone.
c. Fake it: stand up straight and fake a smile even though you are a jelly inside.
9. Your boss tells you that you are to move out of your present department where you are very happy into to a new part of the company. Do you think:
a. That’s terrible, I’m good at my job and am happy here – what’s going to happen?
b. What’s the commute like to the new place?
c. Hmm, that’s a challenge – I’ve been in this place for a long time now and even though it might be uncomfortable, I do probably need a change.
10. Someone close to you is diagnosed with a bad form of cancer. Do you think:
a. It’s not fair – she’s such a good person.
b. That’s terrible but there’s nothing to be done.
c. There’s no such thing as fairness in nature – I’m going to help her rise to this huge challenge and deal with this.
11. A colleague says something insulting to you in front of others. Do you:
a. Quietly pack up your things, slam the door on the way out and go home to brood on it.
b. Phone your partner and vent your anger.
c. Respond with firm, controlled anger requesting an apology and threatening a formal complaint if not given.
12. It is your boss who insults you in public and there is no one to complain to; if you are angry with him, there could be bad consequences, you realize. Do you:
a. Just try to bottle up the anger and distract yourself from it.
b. Phone your friend and vent your anger.
c. Try to work out what made him do it – for example, maybe his own job is at risk – could your competence be showing him up?
13. You are confident and happy in your job when suddenly you are asked to learn a completely new set of skills. Do you:
a. Feel panicky and plead not to have to change because you’re really good at your present job.
b. Start looking for another job.
c. Feel excited by the challenge of learning something new, even if difficult and unfamiliar.
14. A long term friend you thought you were very close to, suddenly and without explanation drops you. Do you think:
a. What’s wrong with me?
b. These things happen.
c. What’s wrong with her?
15. You are made redundant. Do you:
a. Feel useless, abandoned and hopeless.
b. Resign yourself to watching daytime TV.
c. Use the anxiety as a spur to rethinking who you are and what you want to do.
16. You are in the middle of severe family crisis, turmoil and stress: Do you:
a. Seek medication from your Doctor to calm your nerves.
b. Think about how you can escape.
c. When things get too frantic, step back and watch events with a somewhat detached, observer perspective.
17. You suffer a major failure. Do you:
a. Withdraw from the fray to avoid any more humiliation.
b. Focus on your hobbies.
c. Rethink your goal, check if it’s really for you and if so, work out what you can learn from the failure.
18. When you hear the dictum, “What doesn’t kill you, strengthens you,” you think:
a. Nonsense – bad things diminish me.
b. I was never one for generalizations.
c. It’s true within limits – people can grow because of the challenges that bad experiences throw up.
0 points for every a) response
1 point for every b) response
2 points for every c) response
Stress: Challenge or Threat?
Where you aren’t under pressure, you do just fine most of the time. But even small stresses can be daunting and perhaps you tend to try to avoid them more often than you than deal directly with them. And big stresses are even more daunting to you. At times you might not feel like your emotions are under your full control, which can itself be a little stressful and make dealing with other pressures more difficult. Perhaps you lack a little faith in your ability to shape your emotions by what you think and do. But the good news is that you can certainly build that confidence by changing your thoughts as well as focusing your attention on small, achievable goals for yourself.
For you, stresses are a mix of challenge and threat and at times you “zone out” from the stress and immerse yourself in other things, which can be a very positive way to deal with pressure. Some stresses, however, have to be faced up to if you are going to deal with them, and sometimes you find this tough to do, particularly the very big stresses. Importantly, however, you do feel in control of your emotions some of the time and this opens you to more control by learning to harness the benefits of stress: these arise when you treat stress as a challenge more than a threat.
You tend to see stress as a challenge rather than a threat which puts you more in the driving seat when facing up to pressures in your life and work. You feel you have quite a lot of control over your emotions by the goals you set yourself, the thoughts you choose to think and what you focus your attention on. While this doesn’t work all the time, you tend to see setbacks as external problems to be solved rather than as failures inside yourself. This means that you can rise to the challenge of big stresses if and when they arrive.
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