Sunday, December 15, 2013

How to cope with stress.

The holidays are filled with opportunities for excitement and, unfortunately, stress. So, this week I thought I would arm each of you with one more way to cope effectively. Many psychologists, including me, have spent their careers studying the psychology of experiencing and coping with different types of stress. What we know, is that stress is a natural process that integrates physiological and psychological information to promote performance and survival in challenging situations. Like many processes, it’s a two-way street between mind and the body when it comes to identifying and responding to stress. For example, when the mind recognizes a stressful situation it increases your heart and respiratory rates while redistributing blood and glucose (energy) to the brain and muscles. These physiological changes help you to “think on your toes” and move faster, in case there is a need to run away. Similarly, when our heart races and breathing gets faster, our mind can sometimes interpret that as a sign of distress whether it is warranted or not.

What we also know is that these physiological changes that are intended to help us, are often over interpreted and result in panic or under-performance. In psychology, this is sometimes described as the difference between threat and challenge. Threat is when a situation or task requires more resources than are available at the time, while challenge is when the resources available are equal to or greater than those necessary to complete the task. In the present studies, the example given for this is of a skier. Placed at the top of a black diamond slope, a skier with years of training would experience a rush of adrenaline, increase in heart rate, and a surge of energy to the brain and muscles. This is a challenge met with excitement. A different skier, with limited experience and/or shabby skis, may experience similar physiological arousal to the challenge but experience fear instead of excitement; threat. Resources in this theory can be anything, from time, money, materials, social support, or experience that would be helpful in completing whatever task there is in front of you.  
So given all we know now about the complex interactions between the mind and the body when it comes to stress, what can we do to cope with stress better when we have to?

Well, Dr. Jeremy Jamieson of University of Rochester and his colleagues recently conducted studies addressing the question:  

What can we do to cope with acute stress better?

Their hypothesis was that reappraisal, or re-evaluating the context or your perspective of a situation, helps improve the physiological experience of stress and promotes performance. For past ScienceForWomen articles related to reappraisal click here.

To test this hypothesis, they conducted two studies. In the first, participants completed a standardized stress-task where they were asked to give a public speech. Remember what Jerry Seinfeld said, “Most people would rather be in the coffin, than giving the eulogy.”  Just before giving their speech, participants were randomized to three conditions: reappraisal, placebo, and control. The reappraisal participants were given education before the speech on how “arousal can be a tool that aids performance.” The placebo group was told that “the best way to cope with stress is to ignore the source of that stress.” Finally, the control group wasn’t given any instructions on how to cope with the stress of giving a speech.

In this study, they found that individuals who had been randomized to the reappraisal condition exhibited a significantly more efficient physiological response to the stressor (e.g, less constriction of the blood vessels and greater volume of blood being pumped by the heart) compared with participants in the other two conditions. They also found that participants in the reappraisal condition showed less threat perception bias in a computer task after giving their speech compared with their peers. Thus, individuals who were instructed to perceive physiological changes as helpful to them in the task at hand had more efficiently performing physiological systems during the task. They also examined how long these physiological systems took to return to baseline after the speech task ended. They found that individuals in the reappraisal condition returned to their pre-stress cardiac functioning faster than the placebo or control conditions. In short, their systems worked better and returned to normal faster, indicating that individuals who were able to perceive physiological changes in their body as helpful were more effective in using and recovering from the stress of that experience. But did these individuals actually perform better in the speech task?

Dr. Jamieson and his colleagues then conducted a study to address exactly that. They recruited participants who were studying to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) to apply to graduate school. These participants were recruited to take a mock exam in the laboratory. Half of the participants were “educated” that physiological changes that occur during tests such as increases in heart rate, faster breathing, and sweating, were predictive of better performance on the test. The other half of the participants were given no instructions at all. That day, they found that the reappraisal group performed significantly better on their mock exam compared with the control group. Even more exciting, these effects seemed to “stick.” Three months later, these participants returned to the laboratory with their scores on the real GRE, and participants in the reappraisal condition still performed significantly better than their control condition peers.

So, what can we all learn from this experience? I spend a lot of time teaching kids and teens how to cope with stress. One of the initial skills I try to teach is how to recognize the physical signs of stress in the body and explicitly slow down your breath and heart rate in an effort to “trick your brain” into thinking it is calm. While I still know that these practices are helpful, these data suggest that stress can also be effectively managed by reframing our perceptions of those physical signs. Instead of working against your body, why not give it credit. After all, your body has evolved to effectively cope with a great deal of stress such as hunting wild beasts, fighting in wars, child birth, and traveling through extreme climates. These physical systems are in place to optimize you, and apparently it helps to think about your body that way.

What’s missing so far from the research is why perceiving physical symptoms as helpful actually seems to really be helpful. Perhaps it comes back to the theory of threat versus challenge and the availability of resources. When faced with a task like giving a speech or taking an important test, if you are spending your mental energy trying to reduce your racing heart rate or slow down your breath, you are not focusing on the actual task. If your heart is racing, it’s racing for a reason; if your breathing is fast, it’s fast for a reason. Just think of your fast breath/racing heart as your body “Rising to the challenge at hand,” and increasing your physical resources to get the job done. So, get in touch with what your body is doing, and let it help.


Jamieson, J. P., Mendes, W. B., & Nock, M. K. (2013). Improving Acute Stress Responses The Power of Reappraisal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(1), 51-56.

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