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Rethinking Stress Can Help Enhance Performance

High-stress auditions for the Positive Runway Global Catwalk to Stop the Spread of HIV/AIDS, London, UK, June 21, 2019 (Photo by photographer695) Creative Commons license via Flickr

High-stress auditions for the Positive Runway Global Catwalk to Stop the Spread of HIV/AIDS, London, UK, June 21, 2019 (Photo by photographer695) Creative Commons license via Flickr

By Sunny Lewis for Maximpact

ROCHESTER, New York, September 16, 2021 (Maximpact.com Sustainability News) – Heart pounding before an audition, a feeling of being overwhelmed on the job, a headache ahead of a big business deal – all these experiences can indicate high levels of stress. But stress isn’t always a bad thing, according to new research by University of Rochester psychologists, who say stress can be harnessed for good.

“We typically use the word stress to refer to situations in which we feel pressured, judged, or over-worked. The media bombards us with information detailing all the negative things about stress. But stress is not always bad,” explains Dr. Jeremy Jamieson, a University of Rochester associate professor of psychology and the principal investigator at the university’s Social Stress Lab.

Reevaluating how one perceives stress can make a big difference to a person’s mental health, general wellbeing, and success, he concludes after a decade of stress-releated research.

Dr. Jeremy Jamieson is a University of Rochester associate professor of psychology and the principal investigator at the university’s Social Stress Lab. (Photo courtesy University of Rochester)

Dr. Jeremy Jamieson is a University of Rochester associate professor of psychology and the principal investigator at the university’s Social Stress Lab. (Photo courtesy University of Rochester)

For his latest study, published in the “Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,” under the title, “Reappraising stress arousal improves affective, neuroendocrine, and academic performance outcomes in community college classrooms,” Dr. Jamieson and his fellow Rochester researchers trained adolescents and young adults at a community college to treat their stress response as a tool rather than an obstacle.

The college math student subjects who reinterpreted their stress response as performance-enhancing turned out to be “less anxious and generally healthier,” than those who did not, the Rochester psychologists said.

They found that in addition to reducing the students’ anxiety, that “good stress” mindset reset helped them score higher on tests, procrastinate less, stay enrolled in classes, and respond to academic challenges in a healthier way.

“We use a type of saying is believing approach whereby participants learn about the adaptive benefits of stress and they are prompted to write about how it can help them achieve,” said lead author Jeremy Jamieson, PhD, a Rochester associate professor of psychology and the principal investigator at the University’s Social Stress Lab.

Dr. Jamieson researches how experiences of stress affect decisions, emotions, and performance. This study builds on his earlier research on optimizing stress responses.

To reframe their understanding of stress, the math students completed a standardized reading and writing exercise that taught them that their stress responses had a function in performance contexts that applied directly to them, such as test taking.

The researchers found that the reappraisal participants exhibited lower levels of math evaluation anxiety both immediately and on a later exam. They also performed better on the exam than the control group immediately after completing the psychologists’ reappraisal exercise.

The psychologists then assessed procrastination and goals outside the classroom. The reappraisal students reported procrastinating less, which predicted higher scores on their next exam.

We also found that the reappraisal students reported more goals focused on achieving positive outcomes, such as winning a game or passing a test, rather than on avoiding negative outcomes, such as trying not to lose a game or not to fail a test – goals which predict positive performance outcomes and wellbeing.

 

How Stressed Out Kids Can Benefit

Dr. Jamieson has some advice for parents whose kids are stressed and anxious, especially now during the pandemic.

“The first step is dissociating stress from distress and anxiety,” he begins. “Stress is simply the body’s response to any demand, good or bad. Excitement is a stress state, as is anxiety.”

“It’s also important for parents to understand that struggles are normal and can even be growth-promoting with proper support. Nobody innovates and thrives without moving beyond their comfort zones. For kids to grow, learn, and succeed, they will need to engage with and take on difficult tasks,” Jamieson explains.

“The goal should not be to help kids get an A, but rather to push the limits of their knowledge and abilities,” he says. “Taking that difficult math course and earning a middling grade can be more important for long-term success than settling for an easy course and acing it.”

Dr. Jamieson expects kids to benefit from “normalizing experiences of stress and pushing past obstacles.” He says that attitude can help kids understand that they can do hard things. Reducing stress by removing obstacles, such as eliminating exams or making coursework easier can even hinder their progress.

“Although most advice for coping with stress says to relax, in active situations like public speaking or job interviews, reframing how we conceptualize stress is a better strategy,” he has said. “So next time you are preparing to give a presentation, remind yourself that your pounding heart is there to help.”

The U.S. Department of Education funded University of Rochester study. Besides lead author Dr. Jamieson, the research team consisted of Rochester psychology professor Harry Reis, and Rochester graduate students and members of the Social Stress Lab: Alexandra Black, Hannah Gravelding, Jonathan Gordils, and Libbey Pelaia.

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