The Oxford English Dictionary defines stress in the psychological and biological sense as “an adverse circumstance that disturbs, or is likely to disturb, the normal physiological or psychological functioning of an individual”. When we hear about stress, we usually think of a negative impact that a stressful situation might have on us. Indeed, excessive stress is one of the major agents in causing physical and psychological problems. Now in coronavirus times in particular, we need to pay close attention to our levels of stress. The World Health Organisation warns that the COVID-19 pandemic is inducing a considerable degree of fear, worry and concern. The main psychological impacts are elevated rates of stress or anxiety. While these external circumstances are unavoidable, can we help ourselves cope with the situation by changing our perspective on stress itself?
Some level of stress may be motivating and prompt us into action. In fact, many people need the pressure of a deadline to accomplish in record time a difficult task they’ve been postponing for weeks! Recent studies show that how you perceive stress matters. If your perception of stress is negative and you see the situation as threatening, this may lead to negative outcomes. If your perception of stress is positive you may instead see the situation as a challenging opportunity for growth and personal development, this may lead to more positive outcomes. In fact, if you change your perspective and look at stress as an opportunity rather than as a threat, this can improve your chances to respond to the stressful situation in positive ways. If you change your mindset about stress in general, your cognitive, physiological and affective stress responses can become more constructive. You focus more on the positive sides of your life than the negative ones and this can improve your ability to cope with the situation.
So how can we recognise signs of excessive stress and change our perspectives on stress to develop a more positive view? Try this experiment: take a sheet of paper and write on top the stressful situation you’d like to examine. Divide the rest of the paper in two columns. On the left write all the threats that you are perceiving. Go into details and write down every thought that comes to mind. When you’ve finished, take a moment to close your eyes and do a few yawns. Yawning is the fastest way to reduce any neurological stress caused by the first part of this exercise. Make sure you yawn mindfully, observing where the yawn starts, how it develops and where it ends. Pay attention to every feeling and sensation the yawn brings you but don’t dwell on any, just mindfully observe them and let them go. You can add a few super-slow stretches, as slow as the slow motion movie on your smart phone. For example, try to spend a whole minute to roll your head from one shoulder to the other.
Now, let’s turn the threats into more positive affirmations. Staying in the mindfully relaxed state you’ve just achieved through yawning and stretching, in the right column re-write the sentences you wrote in the threats column but this time as opportunities for personal growth and positive change. Use your intuition to come up with strategies for change without generating excessive stress and don’t forget to write down your ideas. Visualize what now appear to be obstacles to growth, write down your ideas for how they might be overcome, and then savour the rewards that will come as you find the right balance of stress and confidence to insure success. Now try them out!
The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Crum AJ et al. Anxiety Stress Coping. (2017)
Delineating the relationship between stress mindset and primary appraisals: preliminary findings. Kilby CJ, Sherman KA. Springerplus. 2016 Mar 15;5:336
Mental health and COVID-19. World Health Organisation technical guidance