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Scientists have long been studying stress. New research provides evidence that stress can be used to help rather than hinder.

Conventional wisdom might persuade us to eliminate stress as much as possible. But psychologists say not so fast.

A study published this year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that students taught to view stress as a coping tool performed better on math exams than students told to put stress out of their minds. 

The researchers behind the study say it’s more evidence that stress can be the key, not the inhibitor, to success.

We are often told stress is a bad thing, says the lead researcher Jeremy Jamieson, PhD, and while long-term or chronic stress that doesn’t go away is bad for our health, our body’s natural stress response can be helpful when it comes to our health and well-being.

Stress is the body’s normal and natural reaction to changes in the environment it perceives as challenging. Our stress response triggers a series of physical and mental processes (your heart starts to beat faster, you feel more energized, and you become more alert, among other effects) to help your body meet the challenge it perceives and that’s why stress can be a tool to help, rather than hinder. All those changes boost your body’s ability to respond. 

Jamieson’s team is working on strategies to help people reframe how they perceive stress, so they can use it to face the many challenges life throws at us. 

In psychology, the term for this is “cognitive reframing,” and it’s a technique that’s been well-studied.

According to a review article published in February 2020 in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion a growing body of evidence suggests that teaching people the usefulness and benefits of stress can improve stress responses, enhance performance, and boost well-being.

In this study of 339 community college students, the researchers gave one group of students a short text explaining what happens in your body when you get stressed and why stress can help boost performance in challenging situations if you think about it as a coping tool rather than a hindrance (stress reappraisal). The other group read a few paragraphs on the stress response, but with a recommendation not to think about any stress that came up. Both groups were then asked to briefly describe how the information might help them perform on exams.

Over the course of a semester, the researchers tracked the students’ math test scores, had the students answer questions about anxiety levels before their exams, and collected saliva samples to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The group that had read about stress reappraisal performed better on exams, had lower levels of math anxiety and even had lower cortisol levels than the group told to keep stress out of their minds throughout the semester when they took tests.

The research shows that stress is damaging only if you perceive you don't have the resources to handle it.

Jamieson says he doesn’t know whether these techniques would work as well for students coping with social or other stressors, because the study was limited to academic stress. 


If you’re worried about an upcoming event at which you need to perform in some way — a presentation at work or a toast at a wedding — here’s how you might reframe stress as something useful.

1. Unlearn ‘Stress Is Bad’

In Jamieson’s upcoming research, he and a team will look at strategies geared at unlearning the “stress is bad” mindset. Remember the last time you got excited about something? That’s actually your stress response at work. “People do not consider that many positive affective states, like excitement, are stress responses,” he says.

2. Notice When Stress Shows Up

Be aware of what stresses you out and how it shows up for you (They can be emotional and physical.) “When stress shows up for me, I notice my jaw clenches. My heart is pounding. I’m sweating,” she says. That’s the stress response at work.

3. Change the Message

Once you’ve recognized stress underway, remind yourself that this reaction is normal, and may even be useful. 

4. Plan Ahead

It’s helpful, also, to plan ahead. Many of us have a fairly good idea of the types of situations that tend to stress us out. Think about what you’ve said or tried in the past that hasn’t worked and plan for how you’re now going to handle it differently in the future.

5. Practice Techniques to Keep Stress Under Control

Remember, stress becomes harmful when you see the stress response as bigger than the actual stressor your body is responding to. Some people may find benefits in practicing techniques to first turn down the volume and intensity of your stress response, like deep breathing techniques, and then facing the challenge at hand.

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