It's not always easy: Coping tips from psychology

It’s exam time. Feeling stressed? That may be a good thing!

stress - finalsYou’re almost done!  Another academic year is just about over.  Just final exams to get through, but, we all know, there can be A LOT OF STRESS associated with final exams!  Nobody enjoys stress and most people believe that stress isn’t good for you.

Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. As a health psychologist, her interest is in helping people be healthier and happier. For many years, McGonigal warned people of the negative effects associated with stress – poorer physical and mental health and even early mortality. But recently, McGonigal has changed her opinion, no longer believing that stress is the enemy.

stress - if you change the way you look at thingsRather, McGonigal proposes that it is how we think about stress, rather than the stress itself , that is harmful to our health. Individuals who believe that stress is destructive, do, in fact, suffer impairment when they are faced with a large amount of stress. HOWEVER, individuals who do not believe that stress is harmful, suffer no such ill effects, even when they are faced with a large amount of stress. Apparently, what’s bad for you is thinking that stress is bad for you! If you can change your mind about stress, it seems that you can change your body’s response to it.

Based on her interpretations of recent research, McGonigal concluded that stress doesn’t have to be debilitating. There is a paradox to stress. It is true that going through something stressful can make you sick or depressed, but it can also be true that the same stressful experience can ultimately make you stronger and more resilient over time. A stress-is-enhancing mindset (as opposed to a stress-is-debilitating mindset) can lead to better health, performance and well-being.

stress - change your mindset

Alia Crum, an assistant professor of psychology, also at Stanford, compared working on her graduate degree  at University to climbing Mount Everest. You’d be naïve to expect a smooth journey.  The cold, stress - Mount Everestwind and snow on an Everest climb are not positive events, but the process of experiencing these adversities is a step on the route to advancing and getting to where you want to be, especially if you are in the right mindset. Stress at University can be thought of in the same way. It’s important to realize that it’s okay, even inevitable, to struggle and stress along the way, in order to get to where you want to go. Not all stress is harmful.

So how do you get into the right mindset with regard to stress?  McGonigal has outlined a number of mindset interventions.  Here are a few:

  • Rather than seeing a stressful event as a “threat”, view it as a “challenge”. A challenge prompts us to step up, focus, and do what needs to be done. A challenge can be seen as an opportunity for new learning, an opportunity to conquer some obstacle. Alternatively, facing a threat can lead us to feel like we will fall apart under pressure. Believe that your body goes into high gear because you want to do well and your body is energized, helping you to rise to the challenge, not because you are in danger of failing.

stress - challenge vs threat

  • Research has shown that people who reframed their performance anxiety as “excitement” performed stress, excitementbetter than those who told themselves to “calm down”. Telling yourself that you’re excited helps you to feel (and look) more confident and prepared and leads you to perform better, than if you tell yourself that you need to calm down. Could you tell yourself, as McGonigal suggests, “My heart is pounding because my heart is in it. Because I care. Because my body is getting ready to rise to the challenge.”
  • One thing that supports people during challenges is to find meaning and purpose in what they’re stress - meaning and purposedoing. It is important to realize that a meaningful life is a stressful life. People with very meaningful lives do have more stresses than people with less meaningful lives. Rather than being a sign that something is wrong in your life, feeling stressed is a sign that you are involved in activities that are meaningful to you. Something that you care about, such as getting through university to meet your life goal,  is at stake.  You could give up the stress, but that would mean giving up on things that are important to you.

Three beliefs about stress that can put you in a positive mindset are

  1. to view your body’s stress response as helpful and energizing, not debilitating;
  2. to view yourself as able to handle, and even learn and grow from, the stress in your life,;and
  3. to view stress as something that everyone deals with, and not something that proves that you are especially troubled.

Choosing to see the upside of stress isn’t about denying the fact that stress can be harmful. It’s about trying to balance your mindset so that you feel less overwhelmed and depressed about the fact that university is stressful. You can’t avoid stress, but you can work on changing your mindset to one in which look at stress as a helpful aid as you journey toward your goals in life.

stress - when you embrace stress

Take care, and focus on the upside of stress.

Rhonda Gilby

This blog is not a substitute for psychological counselling. If you do feel that you are currently in a situation in which you could use some additional help with issues that you are dealing with, please check out the resources presented here.