Do you have a stressful job? Don’t worry, you’re not alone! According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), you are just one of the 10% of the world’s adult population who suffer from this problem. What’s more, in industrialized countries the figure is considerably higher. In the United States, for example, 43% of workers are estimated to suffer the effects of stress, and a million employees miss work every day because of it, according to the American Institute of Stress. Stress would appear to be the defining illness of the 21st century. However, scientists, who have such a good time questioning conventional wisdom, are now asking: What if stress in itself were not such a bad thing? And what if it’s our perception of stress that really matters? Researchers have come up with some interesting answers to these questions. In this post, we’re going to look at two studies that shed new light on some widely-held beliefs about stress.

Kelly McGonigal, a specialist in health psychology who teaches at the University of Stanford, has looked into this area. She has come to an important conclusion: a positive perception of stress protects us from its negative effects. The initial idea of her research was to try to establish a link between stress and the rate of mortality. To this end, she carried out a study of 30,000 adult Americans over a period of eight years. At the beginning of the study, she asked the participants how much stress they had experienced in the previous year, and if they thought that this was bad for their health. She then used publicly available data to track the mortality rate of the group in order to investigate its possible connection with stress. The results were unequivocal. On the one hand, those people who had experienced a lot of stress in the twelve months prior to the start of the research were more likely to have died. On the other hand -and this is the really interesting part- the connection between stress and mortality only held for the participants who believed that stress was bad for their health. Those people who had had a lot of stress in their lives but didn’t think that it was a bad thing were actually less likely to have died: they were the people with the lowest mortality rate in all of the study! That’s pretty impressive. It confirms that the perception that we have of stress determines how it affects us. It also leads to a parallel conclusion: the more positively we are able to look at stress, the better we can shield ourselves from its debilitating effects. Once again, the power of the mind is full of surprises.

Researchers at Harvard University went one step further and asked the question: What if a change in the way we view stress also produced physical changes in our body? To investigate this, the participants in their study were schooled in the positive effects of stress before being placed in a situation that generated socially-induced stress. In particular, they learned about how stress can be useful to help us deal with certain situations; how an increase in our heart beat prepares us for action; and how rapid breathing increases the amount of oxygen that gets to our brain. After undergoing this period of training, the participants showed fewer physical symptoms of anxiety and more self-confidence when they finally did the social stress test. Why did this happen? Quite simply, because training can help us to have a more positive view of stress and to protect us from its negative effects.

Given the choice, none of us would like to have a lot of stress in our lives. However, if we do, aside from conventional stress-reduction techniques, there’s a new one that we can add to our arsenal: changing the way we look at stress. As we’ve seen, the more positive a view we have of stress, the more we’ll be shielded from its negative effects.


Although stress is not good for our health, we can lessen its effects if we change the way we view it.


The way we look at things determines, to a large extent, how they affect us. So, what does stress mean for you? How do you view it?

Stress is not all bad, as it can help to protect us. The more that we’re aware of its potential benefits, the better we will be able to handle it. How much do you know about the effects of stress?

It goes without saying that the more we can reduce the level of stress in our daily routine, the better will be our quality of life. For this reason, properly managing our time and what we do during each day is a first step on the road to avoiding unnecessary stress.


Keller A, Litzelman K, Wisk LE et al. 2012. Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychol.

J. P. Jamieson, W. B Mendes and M. K. Nock. 2012. Improving Acute Stress Responses: The Power of Reappraisal. Association for Psychological Science


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