Psychology of stress
Psychology of stress
Ines Gomez
Psychology of stress
6 min

Psychology of stress

6 min

If you believe that stress is harmful for your health, then the risk of dying early is much higher than when you don’t see stress as harmful. Psychology of stress studies have shown that many harmful effects of stress are not due to the stress per se, but rather to its perception.

The power of perception

Why can a placebo have a positive effect on health? Or a nocebo a negative effect? The answer to these questions comes from psychology of stress studies and was found to lie in how someone perceives these substances. If one believes them to do something in their body, then it is likely that they will notice an effect.

Scientific research has shed some light on perception by showing that our perception of events or substances controls their valence, potency and associative encoding by brain cells in the amygdala. This may sound a bit complicated, but it all boils down to the fact that perception, or how one “sees” things, leads to physiological changes in the body.

This is important, because it means that all sorts of things can influence our reaction to new information. This is heavily exploited by the advertisement industry. Most ads play on emotion, creating a good feeling or eliminating a bad feeling, and talk much less about the actual product that the advertisers want you to buy. As a former director of Heineken once said: “I don’t sell beer, I sell a good time”.

How you perceive things is strongly influenced by your personal circumstances. For example:

  1. Mood state. Whether we are feeling sad, anxious or happy will influence what we pay attention to, and how our brains process information. This alters our view on things happening around us. Being sad or anxious will lead to more negative interpretations of problems and increase the risk for developing stress.
  2. Personality trait. Personality is an important factor that determines how we value an event or substance, and will therefore influence how we react to it. Certain personality traits such as neuroticism (negative emotionality) will facilitate the interpretation of every day’s little problems as stressful events.
  3. Environment. The environment, or context, in which an event takes place, shapes our interpretation and responses to the event. You will be much more afraid of a crocodile in your swimming pool than of one in the zoo behind bars.
  4. Group. Part of your environment is formed by the people you interact with, and to which groups you belong. Each group will have a certain culture, which dictates how you will respond to an event. If you are part of a group in which consensus is that Covid vaccination is harmful, then you will likely think the same thing, and not get the vaccine. If you are part of a group in favor of vaccination, you will likely be willing to get your shot. You are the same person in both groups, but your reaction will be opposite.
  5. Social support. Human beings thrive in social contexts. Being completely alone is for most people very stressful, and some social contact, minimal as it can be for some, is needed for proper mental health. Social support during stress has been shown to suppress stress, mainly because of the release of two substances in the brain: oxytocin and endorphin. These molecules help to interpret stressful situations as less problematic.

There is no second first impression

Our initial interpretation is crucial in forming our response to events. The brain, especially the amygdala, helps us to decide whether an event is good, bad, or neutral. The perception of an event is thus encoded in the amygdala, and the assigned valence of the event determines which further structures in the brain will be activated, or which genetic changes will be induced. One of these structures can be the hypothalamus, the starting point of stress reactions through both the sympathetic nervous system and the HPA-axis.

The initial processing will further determine how we will respond next time to the same event. This is because of “associative learning”. This means that the amygdala associates something neutral with pleasure or pain. For example, a car has by its inert nature no emotional value. However, when you see it closing in on you very fast, you will associate the car with danger (emotional pain). Next time you see a similar car, you will feel fear, remembering that the car represents danger. Should you have seen the car under more likable circumstances, you will feel happy when you see a similar car again. Such learning underlies habituation to stress, meaning that your stress responses will become less active upon several encounters with the same stressor.

Think positively about stress

With time, there are two outcomes of associative learning of (stressful) events.

  1. We habituate. We take the event and the stress associated with it as the “new normal”. We can habituate (like athletes habituating to pain) or adapt to it (knowing what to do next time when the same event happens).
  2. We sensitize. We increase our sensitivity to the same event next time we experience it. Emotions like fear and anxiety can lead to increased sensitization and alter the structure of our brain and negative thinking about a stressful event.

Some psychologists have argued that one should think positively about a stressful event. This would prevent the changes in the brain that lead to negativity, and prime ourselves to habituate to the stressor. This implies that it is possible to choose one thought over another. Psychological studies have shown that if we assert cognitive control (the executive function of our brain) and rethink what is happening, we can not only dampen anxiety but also more rationally deal with stress.

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Think positively about stress!

These insights from psychology are at the basis of stress reduction programs to help you to reinforce positive thinking. For example, participants in a study at Harvard University that learned to view the stress reactions in their body (heart pounding and increased breathing) as something helpful for their health were less stressed, less anxious and more confident than those who saw stress as harmful. By changing their way of thinking, the participants changed their physiological response. Their heart rates were still elevated, but resembled the rhythm produced by joy or happiness and not by stress.

Yoga and mindfulness may also help to calm down and relax. The general idea is to use relaxation techniques to ease the muscles (yoga) and live in the present and not assign value to events (mindfulness). Some scientific studies mention that frequent mindfulness and meditation sessions alter some structures in the brain and the expression of genes. However, this needs further confirmation in additional studies.

However, changing thinking style from negative to positive may be easier said than done. The five factors that I mentioned earlier that influence perception may be in the way of your thinking process. Also, the stress reactions of our body can cause anxiety, and with this irrational and catastrophic thinking. But to get you started, here are some thoughts that may help you to think more positively.

  1. Realize that stress can be a good thing. It gives you the energy and focus to solve problems, or adapt to new situations. The stress systems (heat shock proteins, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis) in our bodies are very powerful to deal with stress. They have not been altered during vertebrate evolution, further demonstrating their success.
  2. Take problems as challenges. Instead of feeling stressed when a problem arises, find energy and motivation to deal with the problem the best way you can. Make it a challenge, and reward yourself with a glass of good wine or a visit to the cinema (or whatever you like) once you have managed to solve the problem. In the process, you will gain learning experience, so that you know what to do when a similar problem arises in the future.
  3. See failures as learning experiences. It is inherent to living that not all problems get solved easily. If you don’t succeed, see the problem and the things you tried as learning experiences. You will grow as a person by knowing what you can do and what you cannot do. And if you are stuck, ask for help.

A positive environment

Remember that the environment has a big influence on perception? It therefore stands to reason that a positive environment has stress-reducing effects.

Unfortunately, many people consider stress to be a weakness. As a result, those who are stressed prefer not to talk about it. It is hard to find a culture in which people can openly discuss stress.

Thus, thinking positively about stress is not only a matter of the individual. It is also an issue at the group level. We should stop thinking that stress is a sign of weakness or incompetence.

Positive thinking alone does not resolve stress

Importantly, one has to realize that only positive thinking, yoga or mindfulness do not automatically resolve stress. For example, you might feel more relaxed right after a session of yoga, but when you return to work the workload and pressure are still there. Thus, while positive thinking, yoga or mindfulness may help to reduce stress, many people prefer a more practical response in addition or instead of these strategies.

Also, stress management techniques, positive thinking, yoga and mindfulness, helpful as they may be, tend to treat symptoms of stress rather than identifying and tackling its causes. So if workload is too high and stress builds up as a consequence of that, stress management should also be directed towards making the amount of work more manageable.

This is why we at Stressinsight propose not only stress reducing techniques, but also focus importantly on work environment and organization as important environmental factors underlying stress at work. In the long run, these are the crucial factors to reduce stress once and for all.