Rethinking Stress Part II: The Power of Stress Reappraisal
Recent research looking into the power of stress reappraisal shows that how you perceive a stressor can have a significant effect on health outcomes. We’ve long known that the stress response can be good if the stressor is perceived as a challenge, where the person believes they have the ability to cope with and overcome the challenge (1). The stress can be bad when the stressor is perceived as a threat, where the individual believes they lack the resources to face the demands of the threat.
This is why elite athletes mentally train themselves to think with a positive mindset; they choose to face the challenge of becoming the best at their sport, rather than collapsing under the threat of failure. In both cases, it is inevitable that failure will occur at some point in the athlete’s journey. What separates the elite athlete from the average one mentally is whether they perceive that failure as a threat they feel they can’t overcome, or a challenge that will push them to become better. Pretty simple, textbook sports psychology right there.
Applying this idea, researchers have been able to examine how reappraising stressful situations can affect cardiovascular health. A 2012 study out of Harvard University (2) put volunteers through a stress test, where they were required to give a videotaped, 5-minute speech to a pair of evaluators, who gave negative feedback to the volunteer. The volunteer was then asked to count backwards from 996 in steps of 7 as fast as they could, again being given negative feedback from evaluators.
Half of the volunteers were part of the stress reappraisal group. These participants “were instructed to appraise arousal as functional and adaptive but were not encouraged to perceive the evaluative task as any less demanding or stressful” (2). The other half comprised control groups. Researchers found that participants in the stress reappraisal group had better cardiovascular responses to the stress, with reduced total peripheral resistance (a measure of vascular resistance, or overall blood vessel constriction/dilation) and increased cardiac output (efficiency of the heart). Basically, the heart pumps blood better and vessels dilate, increasing the flow of oxygen to the brain to improve performance under stress.
These results are consistent with what you would find in a challenge versus threat response to a stressor. In other words, participants who reappraised the stressful situation had the same kind of response that you might expect in an elite athlete who views an elimination playoff game as a challenge rather than a threat. Your mindset going into a stressful situation can affect your cardiovascular health.
So, the science shows that a stressful situation causes increased arousal, which can lead to a negative evaluation of the situation (e.g. as a threat), which in turn can lead to unhealthy physiological responses to that stress and poor performance. By reappraising the situation (e.g. as a challenge), our physiological response can become more adaptive and facilitate better performance as a result.
A 2016 study (3) applied this principle to one of the most stressed populations in North America: students. In the study, 93 students at a community college studying mathematics–a stress-inducing subject for many–were randomly assigned to one of two groups: a stress reappraisal group and a placebo group. The reappraisal group was provided with resources to educate them about the benefits of arousal from stress, such as increased performance, emphasizing that the arousal is not maladaptive or harmful. The placebo group was taught that the best way to deal with stress is to ignore it; they were told that the suppression of negative thoughts related to stress would improve their outcomes during exams. The reappraisal group had both better performance on their exams, as well as reduced anxiety going into the exams.
What can we learn from this study? That ignoring stress is not an optimal strategy, and simply reframing your mindset to view stressful situations as a challenge, or opportunity, can be a powerful tool in improving performance and reducing anxiety in the classroom.
This has led to conclusions that a mindset of stress-as-enhancing can have a positive effect on our responses to stress and overall wellbeing, while a stress-as-debilitating mindset can be counter-productive (4). To illustrate just how important mindset can be when dealing with stress, I direct you to a 2012 study looking at the relationship between stress and health outcomes in the United States (5). The study found a 43% increased chance of premature death that individuals who perceived stress to be impactful on their health, while also reporting high levels of stress. The study estimates that 20,231 premature deaths occur each year in the U.S. due to high reported stress in combination with the perception that stress greatly affects health.
Thus, how we perceive stress and appraise stressful situations can have a profound impact on our health and wellbeing. The best way to deal with stress is to educate yourself about its health effects and reframe your mindset to view stressors as a challenge rather than a threat. Finally, developing effective coping mechanisms, such as physical activity, can play a significant role in our ability to deal with stress.
- Blascovich, J., Mendes, W. B., Hunter, S. B. & Salomon, K. Social “facilitation” as challenge and threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77,68–77 (1999).
- Jamieson, J. P., Nock, M. K. & Mendes, W. B. Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 141,417–422 (2012).
- Jamieson, J. P., Peters, B. J., Greenwood, E. J. & Altose, A. J. Reappraising Stress Arousal Improves Performance and Reduces Evaluation Anxiety in Classroom Exam Situations. Social Psychological and Personality Science 7,579–587 (2016).
- Jamieson, J. P., Crum, A. J., Goyer, J. P., Marotta, M. E. & Akinola, M. Optimizing stress responses with reappraisal and mindset interventions: an integrated model. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping 31,245–261 (2018).
- Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L.E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E.R., Creswell, P.D. & Witt, W.P. Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology 31,677-684 (2012).