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April was Stress Awareness Month. It has been running since 1992. As the founder of a wellbeing consultancy and someone who is passionate about helping people to thrive, it seems ironic that I had no idea Stress Awareness Month even existed until a few years ago. In fact, until I researched ‘stress’ myself, I had failed to grasp the extent to which stress can impact performance, health and wellbeing, nor had I understood how to harness its potential.
We are often told that stress is bad for us. Indeed, when I ask those attending my workshops about the impact that experiencing a lot of stress over a 12-month period would have on their health, 99% of the several thousand people I have worked with say it would be bad for their health. They seem reassured, albeit anxiously so, to learn that there is research to back up their widely held belief. A longitudinal study conducted in the US, found that out of the 29,000 Americans they tracked for eight years, those who had experienced a lot of stress in the previous 12 months were 43% more likely to die the following year. Proof, if ever you needed it, that experiencing lots of stress for a prolonged period isn’t so good for your health.
The problem with the ‘stress is bad’ narrative, is that it doesn’t tell the whole story. We should be wary of stories that paint things in black and white, as they ignore the rich shades of grey that lie in-between. In that same study, the researchers found that, whilst stress did indeed have a negative impact on those who experienced a lot of it, there was a caveat. It only had a negative effect, if an individual believed that stress was bad for their health. The research found that those who experienced a lot of stress but thought that stress was empowering, fared better than those people who only experienced a small amount of stress but thought that stress was bad. A UK longitudinal study, called the Whitehall II study, found a similar correlation; namely, people who believed that stress was negatively affecting their health ‘a lot’ or ‘extremely’ had double the risk of a heart attack compared to people who didn't believe stress would have a negative effect.
What does that research tell us? In its simplest form, the research suggests that stressing about being stressed is potentially worse for our health than the stress itself. To understand that paradox, we first need to understand our stress response, better known as our fight or flight (or freeze) response. It is a mechanism born out of evolutionary biology, which we share with every other mammal on the planet. It evolved to aid our survival in times when we believed that we lacked the necessary resources to deal with a threat, such as coming face-to-face with a sabre-toothed tiger or a waring tribe. Cue fight or flight, which sees a flurry of electrochemical and biochemical activity take place throughout the brain and body.
I often liken the transformation that happens to us in fight or flight to the transformation that Dr Bruce Banner experiences when he turns into the Hulk (less us ripping through our shirt or turning a darker shade of green). For those not familiar with the Marvel comic book character, the transformation is remarkable. A geeky, logical Dr Banner with a highly impressive IQ, is replaced with an ill-tempered, irrational and dumb green giant of a man with superhuman strength. You may (or may not) be surprised to learn that triggering our fight or flight response has a similar effect on us, as humans. Fight or flight takes place in several waves. The first wave, via the sympathetic nervous system, triggers the release of epinephrine (more commonly known as adrenaline) from the adrenal glands which increases heart rate, blood pressure and the amount of blood being pumped to the muscles. This enables us to react quickly and instinctively to threats, such as being able to jump out of the way of an oncoming vehicle without conscious awareness.
The second wave kicks in as the initial surge of epinephrine subsides. The second wave is mediated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) resulting in the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. Cortisol continues to be produced, until such time as the threat has passed. That last piece of information is critical to explaining the paradox of the US study and the Whitehall II study. In my next blog, I will take a look at the effect of cortisol and other hormones on the brain and body and how ‘stress’ has earned its bad reputation.
Nick Bloy is a former lawyer and HR Business Partner with a Masters in Chemistry, who founded Wellbeing Republic in 2016, a consultancy that specialises exclusively in employee wellbeing. He is passionate about helping people to unleash their true potential and he believes that the key to peoples’ potential resides in understanding evolutionary biology and the neuroscience of the brain. He works as an executive coach and trainer, with organisations large and small to help individuals and the organisations they work for to thrive.
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