Have you ever noticed the slight but highly revealing change of the response that occured, when someone asks another person, how he or she is doing? A decade ago, the answer was like an integral part of a mathematical equation: Good! Great! Alright! It followed a pattern and only evoqued interest when the equation did not work: Actually, not that good!
And this is still the case. But these days a couple more words are usually added to the equation: I am great, pretty busy though, but still great! This is a typical response for people that are busily striving for self optimization and self actualization. It is the slogan of a generation that is deeply affected by the advent of the internet and its inherent characteristic of being a goldmine for finding success stories made in Digitalia. You want to become a billionaire? No problem! Mark Zuckerberg managed to do it even well before its thirties! You want to become a famous scientist? That’s even less difficult! The internet is full of information about your field of interest and if 14 years old Taylor Wilson was able to build a nuclear fusion reactor, you can do anything as well.
However, the notion of „Everything is possible“ also has its flipside: It can cause stress, which can be detrimental for your health. Stress can increase your blood pressure and cause heart attacks. It can cause cancer and damage your hippocampus - an area in the brain that is associated with memory processing.. And there are a lot of factors contributing to the modern advent of stress: The increased competition among companies, the insecurity about the future, recent and impending economic crises or the constant rise of global temperature are just some pathogens for the highly transmissive epidemic of the western world.
Stress is not always bad though. Pretty similar to cholesterol, there are two kinds of stress. The „good“ eustress and the „bad“ distress. Eustress motivates you to get things done, while overwhelming distress hinders you to do so. Eustress keeps you healthy when an important deadline is approaching, while distress makes you sick in the long run. Whether or not stress can be characterized as eustress or distress, however, depends on the situation and your response to it: Do you feel overwhelmed or slightly challenged by the situation at hand? If you feel overwhelmed by distress, breathing might help!
The three psychologists Pierre Philippot, Gaetane Chapelle and Sylvie Blairy wanted to explore whether or not specific breathing patterns affect your emotional state. In one study, they divided 26 study participants into four groups that were assigned to each imitate a specific breathing pattern. They found the group that had to take deep and slow breaths to report feeling a lot better than the other groups that had to take quicker and less deep breaths. So, if you are feeling stressed out too much, try to focus on your breaths! Inhaling deeply and slowly for a couple of times might help you to calm down.
And does it make a difference how you perceive stress itself? Most people perceive stress in a negative light: Stress is bad for your health and makes you sick. Barely, you hear someone talk about how stress can make your life more meaningful or increase your resilience. At the same time, most people underestimate the importance of how they perceive stress. Stanford psychologists Alia Crum, Peter Salovey and the famous positive psychologist and book author Shawn Achor conducted a study, where they investigated how people’s perception of stress affects their health and their productivity.
The researchers recruited 388 employees of a large finance company and divided them into three groups. One group was shown three videos over the course of one week summarizing the positive effects of stress on their health, performance and personal growth. Another group saw three videos presenting the negative sideeffects and a third group did not see any video at all.
What the researchers found was that the study participants were quickly changing their attitudes towards stress depending on the group they were in. The positive effects group began to see stress in a more positive light, while the negative effects group evaluated it more negatively. However, it was not only their perception that changed, but also their performance. Study participants in the „stress has positive effects“ group also reported a better work performance after they saw the videos.
So, if you are feeling overwhelmed by distress, pause for a moment and take three deep breaths. And if it is the stress itself that troubles you, try to think about the positive effects of stress. These two strategies might help you to better cope with stress.
Alia J. Crum, Peter Salovey and Shawn Achor (2013): “Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104: 716-733.
Pierre Philippot, Gaetane Chapelle and Sylvie Blairy (2002): “Respiratory Feedback in the Generation of Emotion.” Cognition and Emotion 16: 605-627.