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Recruitment and HR Blog

GUEST BLOG: Reframing stress for improved performance, productivity and wellbeing

2nd December 2020

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We understand that for many HR professionals and business leaders, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it a lot of challenges and it has been a stressful period to say the least. So, we thought we’d share some insights from our guest writer, Growth Consultant and Performance Coach Caroline Gavin.

Any life is a life of change but right now, the pace of change and uncertainty is far greater than many of us are used to, and whether change is positive or negative, it is often a cause of stress.

We are pre-programmed to detect changes in our environment. This is an instinct designed to keep us safe; a rustling in the undergrowth may signal imminent attack by a wild animal!

But the question we unconsciously ask ourselves when faced with change is, ‘Do I have the resources to handle this situation?’ When the answer is ‘yes’ we tend to react positively or not at all. When the answer is ‘no’ we have what is known as a ‘stress reaction’; a reaction that is both physiological (releasing chemical like adrenaline that raised heart rate and prepares us for ‘flight’ or ‘fight’ response) and psychological (feelings of anxiety, anger etc.).

Practicing different ways of thinking can boost our ability to deal with change, and stress, and can help us create a life that is adaptive to new experiences and unexpected events.

How we think, impacts our emotions and our behaviours. By changing the way we think, we can change its emotional impact. This is referred to as ‘positive reappraisal’.

In this article, we look at reappraising or reframing stress as something positive, rather than something negative. We read a great deal about the impact of stress, particularly the negative effects it can have on our brain, our bodies, and long-term health but research suggests, that when stress is managed correctly, stress can actually have a positive impact on our productivity and performance, our wellbeing and long-term health.

‘Stress is a significant factor in mental health problems including anxiety and depression. It is also linked to physical health problems like heart disease, problems with our immune system, insomnia, and digestive problems. Individually we need to understand what is causing us personal stress and learn what steps we can take to reduce it for ourselves and those around us.’ - Mental Health Foundation, May 2018

Reframing stress

'Altering your approach to stress can yield positive effects' - Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others

Firstly, not all stress is negative. The image below demonstrates how stress can be a positive catalyst to improve performance, helping improve focus, and motivation. 

Either side of the 'optimum stress' zone, a lack of stress, or healthy tension, can leave you feeling bored and de-motivated. Stress overload, on the other hand, can leave you feeling exhausted and can increase anxiety, the risk of panic attacks, and fuel anger, and burn-out. It is key to be alert to the signs of both boredom and stress overload if you are to manage stress to achieve a more positive outcome. 

“Stress can be good or bad depending on how you use it.” - Shawn Achor

Positive stress is referred to as ‘Eustress’ while negative stress is referred to as ‘distress’.

The 'trigger point' or 'stress threshold', where stress moves from positive 'Eustress' to negative 'Distress', varies from person to person, situation to situation (e.g. Work vs. Personal), and is based on individual strengths, challenges, personal wellbeing, and personal history. 

You can improve your 'stress threshold', and better manage stress, by making positive changes to support your physical and mental wellbeing, such as eating more healthily, exercising regularly, and getting sufficient rest.

Also, research shows that our attitude and approach toward stress can either increase or decrease actual stress levels within us.

In a study conducted by Shawn Achor, an expert in positive psychology, and Yale researcher Alia Crum, they worked with 380 managers to see if stress could be shifted from debilitating to enhancing merely by changing mindset at work.

“The findings of our study were significant: when an individual thought about stress as enhancing, instead of debilitating, they embraced the reality of their current stress level and used it to their advantage. The negative parts of stress (distress) started to diminish because the fight-or-flight response was not activated, and the individual felt more productive and energetic, as well as reporting significantly fewer physical symptoms associated with distress (such as headaches, backaches, fatigue). In addition, on a scale of 1 to 4, productivity assessment moved from 1.9 to 2.6 — a significant shift. Life satisfaction scores also increased, which in previous studies has been found to be one of the greatest predictors of productivity and happiness at work”. - Make Stress Work for You - Harvard Business Review, Shawn Achor, February 15, 2011

We know from research that the way you think about something will affect how you feel about it. Shawn Achor’s research shows that how you view stress determines its effect on you. He says, “Our brains work much better at positive than at negative, neutral, or stressed. When you are negative and worried, your brain goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode, which limits your ability to think. If you are positive and concerned, then your brain turns to ‘broaden and build’ thinking which allows you to process more possibilities. Which direction you go in is up to you.”

We can quickly and easily change the way we think about something by reframing it. Here are some simple tips for reframing stress:

  • Reframe stress as a challenge rather than a threat. When you do this, you become alive to the opportunities, rather than the threats.
  • Rather than thinking of stress as the enemy, think of it as something that’s going to energise you and get your body ready to perform at its prime.
Your heart might feel like it’s about to beat itself out of your chest – but that’s okay, because it’s getting the oxygen to your brain so you can do what you need to do to shine. Your body might be shaking, but that’s just energy – positioning you for a stellar performance!

We can also better manage stress by understanding it for what it is and, better understanding ourselves. The MENS SANA (Healthy Mind) self-development programme that I deliver in collaboration with Life In Balance Careers, takes you on a 13-week journey of self-discovery and improved self-management, and includes 'Handling Stress', 'Mind Management', and ‘Emotional Management’, to name just a few of the 13 empowering sessions. 

Learn more about the MENS SANA programme here or contact Caroline Gavin at 4PositiveGrowth to explore how we can help you, your teams, or your business, to be at your best both now, and into the future.

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