6 November 2020 08:37
They’re generally not considered pleasant feelings and most of us do our utmost to avoid them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re always wholly negative. Sometimes, like a boxer, it can be better to lean into the punch.
Stress is our body’s natural fight-or-flight mechanism kicking in. Whilst it may have evolved to ward off sabre-tooth predators rather than hand in spreadsheets, the causes are still similar in some key respects. When confronted with a challenge, we may need extra awareness, strength, speed or intensity. Stress provides us with these things in abundance - though often they can feel misplaced.
So whilst it's tempting to avoid stress, sometimes psychologists work to try and get clients to reevaluate stress more positively. To think of it in terms of ‘excitement’ or an energetic state.
Sometimes whether we view stress as a help or a hindrance can depend on our underlying attitudes and personality. When confronted with pressure, or an unexpected difficulty it’s easy to fall prey to certain thought patterns or fallacies. How susceptible we are to these depends greatly on our own personalities as shaped by previous experiences of something similar.
Let's look at an example:
Whilst walking through a park one day Jan encounters a dog. He automatically feels nervous and frightened as he has a long-held fear of dogs. This stems back from his childhood when he was bitten by a neighbour’s pet on his way back from school. Jan’s mind begins racing: “what if it has seen him? What if it is angry? If it is, it may want to bite me, perhaps I’ll get a disease from the bite. I could get sick. If it's serious enough I’ll have to miss work, I could lose income, I could be seriously injured, even die.”
Such thinking is an obvious example of catastrophizing, a thought pattern whereby we quickly go from the situation as it is and start picturing the worst possible outcome. In fact, the dog could be quite friendly and its owner may be nearby. They might even be a friend of Jan’s and be glad to see him. Furthermore, if the dog senses Jan’s fear, it might itself become weary of him, and become defensive leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
What a psychologist might say is that whilst Jan cannot easily affect his instincts, i.e. his fear response, he does have more control over how he reacts logically to it. Over time, they might help Jan work on his catastrophizing thought patterns, molding them to something more positive. Perhaps in the very long term, this might be even one way to improve his instinctual fear of dogs, but this is a separate goal.
What this example can teach us is that there are ways that we can adjust how we deal with negative thoughts and so-called negative experiences like stress. If we catastrophize every time we experience a tight deadline or a problem at work, it is going to have a cumulative, negative effect on our mental health.
Whilst not all stress is necessarily bad, it is not always necessarily good either. The key is to be able to separate instinctual from rational responses. If we can see stress for what it is and learn to harness the rush that it gives us, we can turn one of the most common negatives for our mental health into a net positive.