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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Can you optimize your stress response?

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Alia J. Crum, Jeremy P. Jamieson, Modupe Akinola

People disagree a lot these days, but they do tend to agree on a few things. For one, the dominant cultural understanding of stress is that it is bad for us. This conception of stress leads countless individuals to embrace the common goal of reducing or avoiding it from day to day. But, given that stress is a fact of modern life, we propose an alternative approach: stress optimization.

The widespread negative evaluation of stress has arisen, in part, because of research documenting its effects on our physical and mental health, brain aging and cardiovascular disease. The truth about stress, however, is not quite so grim. Multiple lines of research link it with several beneficial outcomes. For instance, studies link stress to personal initiative and productivity as well as physiological thriving.

Even high-intensity stress experiences triggered by life-threatening events can sometimes have positive outcomes — including improved relationships, a greater appreciation for life and enhanced perceptions of inner strength — a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth.” What, then, determines whether stress helps or harms us? Early research focused on features of stressful experiences such as their frequency, severity and duration, as key determinants. However, more recent findings show that the way people evaluate and cope with the stress they experience directly determines outcomes.

Hans Selye, a pioneer in stress research, defines stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it.” Selye insisted that experiencing stress can have both negative (distress) and positive (eustress) outcomes. Yet as indicated at the outset, the term is synonymous with distress. Indeed, the most widely used self-report measure of stress — Carnegie Mellon Professor Sheldon Cohen et al.'s Perceived Stress Scale — includes questions such as “How often have you felt that difficulties were piling up so high that you could not overcome them?” Such questions associate stress with negative emotions characterized by situational demands exceeding our ability to cope. Interestingly, professor Cohen, who is recognized as the founder of the field of health psychology, was the first to provide evidence that high perceived stress increases susceptibility to the common cold.

The question is, if one feels capable of managing or even thriving from a stressful experience, does that still constitute stress?

“Stress is bad” definitions would suggest that coping with or even thriving under stress would not, by definition, constitute a stressful experience. But that mindset is problematic, because it ignores potentially positive outcomes that may come from stressful situations. Further, it assumes that experiences of stress and its negative effects necessarily co-occur, suggesting that the only way to remove the negative effects is to avoid or reduce the source of stress.

The fact is, some of our most treasured and meaningful experiences in life involve stress, including excelling in one’s career, maintaining deep relationships over long periods of time and raising children. Indeed, when people are invited to reflect on the times in their lives when they have learned, grown substantially or performed at exceptionally high levels, they often report those times as also having been deeply stressful.

To embrace the notion that stress can be either negative or positive, it is essential to separate the cause of stress (stressor) from our reaction to it (stress response). Accordingly, we would update the definition of stress as “the anticipation or experience of encountering demands (e.g. danger/conflict, uncertainty or pressure) in one’s goal-related contexts” and define stress response as “the body’s response (physiological, behavioural and emotional) to the experience of stress.”

Stressors can therefore be defined as “manifold aspects of one’s life that can cause stress,” including, for example, poverty, acute trauma, a conflict with one’s spouse, a cancer diagnosis or heavy traffic. By definition, these situations cause stress to the degree that they are anticipated or experienced as demanding in an individual’s goal-related context (i.e. they are important to the person experiencing them at that moment in time).

These distinctions are especially critical when it comes to stress regulation, which we define as “the manner in which stress responses are changed or altered within the individual.” Defining stress as the anticipation or experience of encountering demands, and separating it from outcomes, suggests that stress responses can be regulated — and ideally optimized — regardless of whether the stressor (i.e. demand) itself is viewed as “good” (e.g. having a child) or “bad” (e.g. having a disease). Moreover, even in the context of ‘bad’ stressors, it may be possible to perceive stress as ‘good’ and intentionally alter one’s stress response as a result of that positive valuation.

Although stress regulation resembles coping in that both reflect ways of changing stress responses, coping can sometimes imply merely surviving or subsisting. Thus, we prefer the term stress regulation because we wish to also convey the possibility of optimizing stress responses such that one’s life is improved, not despite — but because of — the stress.

When stress is no longer viewed as only bad for you, but is perceived as being potentially good for you, this changed valuation has two important effects:

1. It removes the stress people experience about the purported negative effects of stress — or ‘stress about stress.’

2. It fundamentally changes the goal to one of stress regulation.

The stress optimization approach focuses on empowering individuals to identify, select and apply regulatory strategies on their own. Following are four powerful stress regulation strategies:

TOOL 1: SITUATION SELECTION: The intention of stress optimization is to select situations (regardless of the stress they might cause) that create opportunities to grow, learn and discover. For example, a person might seek to address a conflict with their partner rather than avoid it, subject themselves to difficult training to prepare for a competition or seek out health information to facilitate prevention or treatment. Additionally, the goal of optimizing stress can also lead people to disengage with stressful situations that don’t align with their valued goals. For example, dissolving a relationship that is unfulfilling, or turning down an opportunity in order to complete an unfinished task — despite the fact that saying “no” or exiting relational situations can themselves be highly stressful.

TOOL 2: ATTENTIONAL DEPLOYMENT: An individual can attend to the underlying goals and opportunities associated with a stressor rather than focusing solely on its negative aspects. For example, if someone is facing an impending exam, rather than focusing on all the ways the stress they feel is uncomfortable, they can focus on the fact that they are stressed because performing well on the exam is important to them, and devote more of their attentional resources toward achieving this goal.

Moreover, one may also attend to unforeseen opportunities that can arise in the midst of stress. For instance, a disease diagnosis could be an opportunity to redefine one’s values and live in a more meaningful way. Research has shown that valuing stress as a ‘functional’ aspect of life is associated with reduced attentional biases for emotionally negative information and increased attentional bias toward sources of positivity.

TOOL 3: COGNITIVE CHANGE: Reappraisal processes represent a broad array of strategies in which an individual can alter their thoughts in an attempt to regulate stress. The key distinction with our approach is that an individual will be more likely to choose reappraisal strategies that are aimed at optimizing rather than reducing or ignoring stress. For instance, rather than attempting to reappraise a situation in a way that makes it seem less stressful (e.g. trying to ‘put stress out of your mind’), an individual can employ reappraisal tactics to change perceptions of the stressor and one’s ability to effectively regulate one’s response to it (e.g. ‘I have what it takes to manage this diagnosis.’) Reappraisal tactics can be employed at the level of the situation or stressor (e.g. choosing to view piling demands as evidence of a positive trajectory) and/or at the level of the stress response (e.g. telling yourself that anxiety and arousal just mean you’re excited).

TOOL 4: RESPONSE MODULATION: This entails modifying behavioural, physiological and psychological stress responses after stress is experienced. Rather than strategies intended to suppress stress responses (e.g. taking beta-blockers or drinking alcohol) or suppressing behavioural displays associated with stress responses (e.g. remaining stoic), stress optimization encourages people to utilize or even ‘up-regulate’ stress responses to facilitate goal attainment.

For example, a student experiencing stress about a pending exam may decide to drink a cup of coffee to help them stay up late to better prepare, thereby optimizing the stress associated with the exam. In fact, up-regulating arousal outputs via ‘pump-up’ music, pep talks and warmups, to name a few tactics, are common strategies employed by athletes before high-stakes games.

People who are overly keyed-up about something may also seek to engage in deep-breathing or other relaxation techniques to be in a more optimal state before a stressful event. Here, again, the response-modulation strategy would be chosen based on the goal of optimizing the outcome in the stressful situation, and not on simply reducing the stress.

There can be no doubt: Modern life is stressful. Herein we have presented four tactics for optimizing stress by identifying, selecting and applying regulation techniques that serve to achieve our underlying goals and values — as opposed to merely seeking to outright reduce stress. Always remember: How we respond to life’s stressors is a key determinant of our overall health and well-being. We hope that our model can assist readers in improving both.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of the Rotman Management magazine and summarizes the recent paper "Optimizing Stress: An Integrated Intervention for Regulating Stress Responses,” which was published in the journal Emotion. Subscribe to the Rotman Management magazine now for the latest thinking on leadership and innovation.  

Alia J. Crum is an associate professor of psychology and medicine at Stanford University.
Jeremy P. Jamieson is a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.
Modupe Akinola is a professor of business at Columbia Business School.