Tips & Insights — 30 April 2018

The three Cs: How to stop seeing stress as a negative

For stress awareness month we’ve brought you some great stress management tips, explored some key characteristics to foster in the workplace and for hiring new recruits, provided a wealth of tools and tips to help you avoid burnout, and brought you 64 other tips and tactics to help you stay effective and stress free! Now, for the final post of the month, we bring you coping mechanisms from our friends at Headspace.

Besides creating a brilliant app for mindfulness meditation that helps you to stay focused and in flow to do more of your best work, they conduct valuable research into the effects meditation has on physical and psychological health. They work with partners and universities to further our understanding of meditation and mindfulness and how it can be used to stay focused, boost compassion and reduce daily stress and perceived stress. This blog brings you some recent Headspace research findings to help you understand your stress, turn stress into a positive, and some food for thought on mindfulness as a tool for corporate wellness.

Understanding your stress response

According to Headspace, the majority of stressors that we experience in modern society are social. We’re worrying about bad reviews, performing poorly on some test or job task. But our response systems are built on the architecture that was originally designed to deal with physical stressors. In other words, when we step on stage to give that speech, our body reacts like it just spotted a bear.

But, according to Jeremy Jamieson, a psychologist at the University of Rochester who studies the effect of stress on decision making and emotions, we aren’t doomed to always respond in this fashion to stress. We can learn to reappraise our stress and anxiety as excitement and positive emotion.

Shifting your mindset

It’s the difference between feeling excited and confident, versus being paralysed with fear. If you are able to view your fear and reappraise it you can not only improve how you respond to it, but it becomes a positive. According to Jamieson, if you believe that you can handle the challenge then you experience an ‘approach-motivated’ stress state and your body prepares to approach the stressor, making you feel excited and pumped up.

His research shows that you can alter these physical responses by changing how you think. In one experiment, a group of students preparing for an exam were told that signs of physiological arousal – such as increased heart rate – predict better performance on the test. These students who were encouraged to embrace stress outperformed their counterparts on the exam during in-lab practice and during the actual exam months later.

In a series of experiments conducted by Alison Wood Brooks, a researcher at Harvard Business School, she found that people who were instructed to say the words, “I am excited” before singing karaoke or giving a speech performed better than those encouraged to express anxiety, calmness, or no emotion. Others who read a slide with the words, “Try to get excited” performed better on a stressful test than those who read, “Try to remain calm” on a control slide. If we feel anxious or stressed, we can reappraise that negative emotion as positive excitement and improve our performance at work.

The Three Cs

So, it is possible to change how we view stress and improve our performance, but how can we do this and why should we do this? Well, it’s worth bearing in mind that our approach to stress can have long-term effects. Dr Salvatore Maddi, a psychologist at the University of Chicago tracked more than 400 company executives and middle managers for six years leading up to a major layoff and then for another six years after. His research found that following the layoffs, two-thirds of the people struggled with work performance, leadership, and health. Some experienced heart attacks, strokes, obesity, and even depression. The other third, however, maintained their health, happiness, and positive career performance.

The difference between the two groups came down to their attitudes towards stress and could be distilled into what he called the ‘Three Cs.’ Those that thrived in the face of stress exhibited:

  • Commitment – wanting to be involved in what was happening around them
  • Control – wanting to influence outcomes rather than be passive
  • Challenge – viewing the stress as an opportunity for learning and growth

Embracing mindfulness to reduce stress and gain control

What else can you do stay in control? In a recent whitepaper from Headspace, it explains how mindfulness meditation can help you reduce stress and describes the huge positive impact that this can have in the workplace. It helps regulate emotions, changing the brain to be more resilient to stress and improving stress biomarkers. The whitepaper highlights numerous studies that demonstrate how workers (particularly those in high-stress occupations) have experienced significant health benefits from mindfulness training.

The three core benefits of mindfulness training are:

1. Emotional regulation
Stress can lower our control of our emotions which can make it difficult to handle challenging situations. Mindfulness can help employees shift their perceptions and regulate emotions like anger and frustration.

2. Brain changes
Regular meditation has been proven to change brain physiology. The amygdala – our fight or flight centre – is the part of the brain responsible for anxiety, fear, and stress. MRI scans show that after eight weeks of mindfulness training the amygdala shrinks. As it shrinks the prefrontal cortex (associated with skills like concentration and decision-making) gets bigger.

3. Stress biomarkers
Mindfulness meditation can positively affect a range of stress-related biomarkers, including a reduction in blood pressure and heart rate. It can also reduce the impact of a stress hormone called cortisol, which helps regulate stress and hormone balance for stress resilience.

If you are a manager and looking to find ways to reduce stress in your team, investigate different management techniques like macro management and the value of implementing mindfulness training. It is a growing tool for corporate wellness and has a positive impact almost immediately as well as making positive, lasting change.

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