Perception and Stress

When I mention stress what are the first things you think of? For many it is being overwhelmed. It is when things start adding up to the point that we no longer have any control over our life. It is a thing to be avoided, at least that is what the conventional wisdom says right?

So what is stress?

Eustress is a positive stress that motivates and inspires us. It is a driver for change in our lives and our society. Without a challenge there is no need for growth. So yes some stress is essential to have a happy and fulfilled life. The problem arises when the good stress is allowed to build up and is no longer manageable or tolerable. While some small amounts of stress are essential to life too much stress is detrimental to it. We stop seeing the positives of the challenge and instead we begin to only this overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable task in front of us. Stress can create an increase in our blood pressure, or breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and we may experience some physical tensions in our bodies. We may notice ourselves overeating or not eating enough, or turning to negative coping strategies such as drinking or smoking which only add on to our stressors.

In his work “The Republic”, Plato shared an allegory of the cave. In this cave was a group of people who spent their entire lives living within its confines. Every day they would see shadows moving on the walls of the cave and since they were unable to see what objects were casting those shadows their belief was that the only thing that was real was the shadows themselves. In 380 B.C. Plato was arguing that mankind was living in our own darkness and we did not have the ability to see the light outside. In his story the enlightened one stands up and walks outside the cave. He stepped outside of his limited perception of reality and was able to see the world more fully. Today we are still stuck inside the cave. We are still prisoners of our own perceptions missing so much of the world. It is our perceptions that create what is reality for us. It controls our emotions by telling us if something is positive or negative. In turn our emotions shift the focus of our perspective either positive or negative respectively. It influences whether we can see the positives in a situation or whether we can only see the negatives. It goes to the is that glass half full or half empty question when ultimately what we should realize is that it doesn’t matter whether it is half full or half empty. What matters is what we do with the glass. So what does this have to do with stress?

Research done by Keller et al. clearly illustrates the power of perception especially when dealing with stress. In their research they compared people who were experiencing large amounts of stress and following public death records for a time after. What they found was that the people who saw stress as having a large negative impact on their health had a significant increase of stress related illness and death. In fact, they stated there was a 43% increase in premature deaths. Just perceiving the negative impact of stress on our health was enough to increase premature death by 43% let that sink in for a minute. The same is not true for those who can readjust their perceptions of stress as something that is functional.

Research done by Jamieson et al. showed that when participants were able to reconstruct their perspective of stress as something that was functional they had a better awareness of available resources, and improved cardiovascular functioning.

When we actively work to expand our consciousness, we stop fearing the unknown and face it we become like that enlightened cave dweller who stepped outside of the cave for the first time. We stop walking through life in the darkness and start to see the light of hope and can find the motivation in a challenge.

Referenced Articles

Abiola Keller, Kristin Litzelman, Lauren E. Wisk, Torsheika Maddox, Erika Rose Cheng, Paul D. Creswell, and Whitney P. Witt (2012) Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality, Journal of Health Psychology Sep 31(5).

Jeremy P. Jamieson, Matthew K. Nock, and Wendy Berry Mendes. (2012) Mind over Matter: Reappraising Arousal Improves Cardiovascular and Cognitive Responses to Stress, Journal of Experimental Psychology Aug 141(3).