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Manage stress: embrace the good and fix the bad

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Stress is a part of everyday life. It is inevitable, whether it comes with an upcoming exam, a job interview, planning an event, public speaking, or travelling. The goal is to effectively control stress. But is all stress bad stress? And can reframing negative thoughts change the way you see stress? There are evidence-based stress management techniques that you can use for both good stress and bad stress.

Some stress is good for you

Stress is your body’s normal reaction when it is under pressure and your body is well adapted to manage stress perfectly. Daniela Kaufer, professor at Berkeley, conducted research that found that some stress is needed to push towards optimal alertness and improve memory [1]. Your brain needs lifelong stimulation to continue building brain connections and preserve its capacity. Small amounts of stress can contribute to that. 

Stress can make you mentally stronger. Your brain adapts to stress in stages. At first, the brain uses low to moderate stress to strengthen itself. It develops new connections and prepares for the challenges posed by stress. This builds resilience. After a certain threshold, the skills gained during low stress levels act as a buffer for higher stress levels, reducing the harm stress can bring. Up until this point, stress is good for you. Beyond this, it is harmful. 

Stress can improve your memory

Experiencing some stress has been linked with benefits like increased motivation, drive to work harder, and even improve memory and cognitive skills [3]. Evidence shows that presence of short-term stress either before learning or after learning can improve recall of learnt material [4]. 

Acute short-term stress can improve memory by stimulating production of new brain cells. Animal studies found that being subjected to stress for a short time, activates the area of the brain that generates brain cells, which leads to increased memory after two weeks [5]. The stress faced before an important interview can push you to plan effectively, practice adequately and do your best, increasing your chances of doing well in the interview.

Stress can be your friend

The level of stress you experience is beyond your control. You can change the way you perceive stress by looking at it from a different perspective. This is called cognitive reframing

A group of people were asked to conduct a public speaking session. Some of them were trained to view the stressful situation as a motivator while others were asked to ignore the feeling of stress. Those that were trained to reframe stress had improved blood flow during the session and were more attentive [6]. This was also seen in students who were scheduled for a major exam. When informed that increased heart rate when stressed will help improve performance, as opposed to impair it, those students scored higher on the exam conducted 1-3 months after the training session, exhibiting long term benefits [6]. It was also found that employees who viewed stress as beneficial reported higher quality of life, higher levels of optimism and resilience [7]. 

4 ways to manage stress 

In addition to reframing the way you view stress, there are evidence-based stress management techniques you can practice in your life to better manage your stress.

  1. Mindfulness: Mindfulness is about being present in the current moment which helps to increase self-awareness. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was developed by medical professor Jon Kabat-Zinn and is an eight-week program following physical and mental exercises. It focuses on self-regulation of emotions and stress reduction. This technique has been well studied among those with stressful careers and chronic disorders and one review reported 64% improvement in stress reduction and increase in optimism, mood, and confidence [8].Cognitive reframing Manage stress stress management techniques  Reframing negative thoughts control stress
  2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation: This was developed by Harvard University’s Edmund Jacobson to promote relaxation by contracting and relaxing 16 muscle groups. It has shown to decrease stress; and increase motivation and productivity [9]. It is a part of stress management treatment in the US military [10]. A shorter version of this technique involves the tensing and relaxation of the following seven muscles: (1) the right hand and arm, (2) the left hand and arm, (3) the face, (4) the shoulders and neck, (5) the chest, back and belly, (6) the right leg, and (7) the left leg. The muscles should be tensed for 5 seconds and relaxed for 10 seconds.
  3. Nature pill: Even simple techniques like spending time in nature is known to be beneficial. Research states that spending 20-30 mins in nature at least 3 times a week is shown to decrease stress hormone levels by almost 20% [11].Cognitive reframing Manage stress stress management techniques  Reframing negative thoughts control stress
  4. Certain nutritional compounds like l-theanine can promote relaxation without sedation. To read more, click here.Cognitive reframing Manage stress stress management techniques  Reframing negative thoughts control stress

References

  1. Sanders, R. (2013). Researchers find out why some stress is good for you. Berkeley News.
  2. Oshri, A. et al. (2022). Is perceived stress linked to enhanced cognitive functioning and reduced risk for psychopathology? Testing the hormesis hypothesis. Psychiatry Research, [online] 314, p.114644. 
  3. Rudland, J.R. et al. (2019). The stress paradox: how stress can be good for learning. Medical Education, 54(1).
  4. Yaribeygi, H. et al. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI journal, [online] 16(1), pp.1057–1072.
  5. Kirby, E.D. et al. (2013). Acute stress enhances adult rat hippocampal neurogenesis and activation of newborn neurons via secreted astrocytic FGF2. eLife, [online] 2, p.e00362.
  6. Jamieson, J.P. et al. (2013). Improving Acute Stress Responses. Current Directions in Psychological Science, [online] 22(1), pp.51–56. 
  7. Jamieson, J.P. et al. (2018). Optimizing stress responses with reappraisal and mindset interventions: an integrated model. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 31(3), pp.245–261.
  8. Vibe, M. et al. (2017). Mindfulness‐based stress reduction (MBSR) for improving health, quality of life and social functioning in adults: a systematic review and meta‐analysis. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 13(1), pp.1–264. 
  9. McCallie MS. et al. (2006). Progressive muscle relaxation. Journal of Human Behaviour in Social Environment, 13(3):51–66. 
  10. Herman, P.M. et al. (2017). Complementary and Alternative Medicine Services in the Military Health System. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 23(11), pp.837–843.
  11. Hunter MR. et al. (2019) Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers. Frontiers in Psychology. 10:722. 


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