Is stress simply a matter of perception?

stress-gray-hair-1I’ve done a few public talks and presentations now, and I’m usually overcome with nerves beforehand.  It’s just not something that comes at all naturally, and as a result it’s often not as enjoyable as it could be.  Some new research from the University of Rochester suggests that there is a way to overcome these nerves, and it’s all down to how you perceive the signs of stress we experience.

“The problem is that we think all stress is bad,” explains Jeremy Jamieson, the study’s lead author and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.

He suggests that we have the wrong impression of the signs of stress we often see before doing something important.  Those butterflies in the stomach and sweaty palms shouldn’t be seen as something to worry about, but rather as a sign that the body is getting geared up for action.  So in other words, it’s a good sign that these things are happening because it means the body is ready.

“Those feelings just mean that our body is preparing to address a demanding situation,” explains Jamieson. “The body is marshaling resources, pumping more blood to our major muscle groups and delivering more oxygen to our brains.”

How to use stress to your advantage

The researchers used the Trier Social Stress Test to induce stress in the participants in their study.  Participants were asked to give a five minute talk about their strengths and weaknesses.  The catch was that they were given just three minutes to prepare.  What’s more, around half of the participants had a history of social anxiety.

To test their hypothesis the participants were split into two groups.  The first group were told about the ‘correct’ way to intepret stress signals and told to perceive them as beneficial to their task.  The second group however received no such information.

Both groups then had to deliver their speech in front of two judges, with the judges very much from the reality TV school of judging, with each instructed to provide frequent negative, non-verbal feedback throughout the speech.  This included things like shaking their heads or tapping their clipboards as if bored.

After the talk, participants had to perform a mental task, whereby they were asked to count backwards in steps of 7 from a start point of 996.  During this exercise the judges continued their passive aggressive barrage.  The idea was to again test how the participants performed under stress.

Stress is good

Interestingly, the participants who received stress preperation did better on the trial.  The once without any prep beforehand were found to exhibit the kind of fight or flight threat responses typical in stressful situations.  This contrasted with the other group, who had much better physiological responses, and confirmed this with their perception of being more in control of the situation.  Fascinatingly it was found that the prepped group pumped more blood through the body per minute compared to the other group.

The moral of the story is that our reaction to stressful situations seems to be shaped by our perception of stress itself.  So if we want to feel better in such circumstances we need to start thinking more positively about stress.


4 thoughts on “Is stress simply a matter of perception?

  1. As a trainer I know the signs of stress very well. Every training (yes, EVERY one) is accompanied by sweaty palms, shacky hands and an overall uncomfortable feeling. But just as you stated in this post: This is all normal and I know that it will be gone the moment I step up and start to introduce myself.

    While we might see stress as a negative it actually helps us to focus – when under stress all those small things cease to be important and I am just in the moment with my participants and my material. That actually supports my delivery.

    Good thing that scientists agree with me;)


  2. Stress can be positive and help in your daily life, but people relate it with distress. Distress is negative sense of the whole attack on mental activities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *