21 September 2021

Enjoy that stress, it’s good for you!

The Back Page

It’s hard to find a good-news story about stress these days – you could be forgiven for thinking it was public health enemy number one.

But we really should see stress as a friend, not an enemy, according to a study that showed student performance on exams improved after some re-education.

University of Rochester researchers took 300-odd community college students and randomised half of them to a reading and writing exercise on the beneficial function of stress in performance contexts such as test-taking.

They then sat maths exams, immediately and later. Compared with the control group, those taught “stress reappraisal” experienced less anxiety about the exam, perceived less threat, and exhibited lower cortisol and higher testosterone readings.

Here’s the kicker: they also got better marks, procrastinated less and stayed in their courses longer than the controls.

The Back Page wishes someone had taught her how to “reappraise” the tachycardia, jelly fingers, breathlessness and nausea that accompanied every musical or dramatic or sporting performance at school, every job interview, every – well, every event of any significance at all.

Lead author Jeremy Jamieson, associate professor of psychology, said people tended to interpret their stress responses as “I’m going to bomb this interview”, when their function was really to help deliver oxygen to the brain and release energising hormones.

“Instead of thinking of everything as ‘bad’ stress, stress responses, including the stress arousal [i.e. sweaty palms or faster heartbeat], can be beneficial when it comes to psychological, biological, performance, and behavioral outcomes,” he said.

“Stress reappraisal is not aimed at eliminating or dampening stress. It does not encourage relaxation, but instead focuses on changing the type of stress response: If we believe we have sufficient resources to address the demands we’re presented with – it doesn’t matter if the demands are high – if we think we can handle them, our body is going to respond with the challenge response, which means stress is seen as a challenge, rather than a threat.”

Professor Jamieson said avoidance of stressors could have significant costs, and that finding a way to embrace and overcome stressful demands was the only way to thrive.

He also had some tough-love advice for parents and educators who can’t bear to expose their little snowflakes to any heat: “For kids to grow, learn, and succeed, they will need to engage with and take on difficult tasks … Reducing stress by removing obstacles, such as eliminating exams, making coursework easier, etc. can even hinder their progress.”

Just substitute GPs for kids, and abusive patients and paperwork for exams and coursework, and you’ll feel better in no time.

If you want something reappraised, email felicity@medicalrepublic.com.au.

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