by Roxanna Salim
Stress is something we face daily. Whether it is the stress associated with getting stuck in traffic on your way to work, having to prepare for an exam in school, or nervously anticipating the response to your first blog entry on a company’s website. When we are stressed physically or psychologically, a cascade of events occurs in our bodies that can influence our ability to function. These events include the activation of two stress response systems: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). These two systems activate changes in our hormones and nervous system activity that directly affect our energy levels and our immunity to disease. They also influence our ability to think clearly and relate to others.
These stress responses result in powerful biological effects. However, research suggests that these effects can be influenced psychologically. Self-perception in the face of stress, called cognitive appraisal, can affect the degree to which both the HPA axis and the ANS are activated (1). Specifically, if we believe we are strong enough to handle the stress and see a situation as a challenge, it can create a more positive mood and help us progress towards a goal (2). Further, when stress is viewed as a challenge, our system produces only low to moderate increases in ANS (3) and HPA axis (4) activity and supports improved performance. For example, challenge appraisals have been shown to boost performance in mental arithmetic and public speaking tasks.
If we believe we are not strong enough to cope with the stress, and see a situation as a threat, it can result in a negative mood and withdrawal from goals (5). When stress is viewed as a threat, our system leads to greater increases in both ANS and HPA reactivity than does viewing stress as a challenge (1,5,6). Viewing a situation as a threat also leads to deficits in performance on tasks like mental arithmetic or public speaking. This research shows that the way we evaluate and think about stress directly influences our physical response and performance on typical work tasks (1).
Let’s extend this thinking to a typical work situation. Imagine that on a very busy day, you are asked to give an important presentation on a controversial topic at a project review meeting. We know that the way you think about this task will directly influence the intensity of your stress response and resulting performance. On the one hand, if you think you can prepare what you need and have what it takes to do well on this presentation (i.e., see it as a challenge), you are likely to feel motivated and do well. On the other hand, if you think you will fail and see the presentation as a threat, you are more likely to experience intense psychological and physical stress effects and perform poorly.
The good news from this research is that understanding your stress state can help you notice and name your reactions to high-pressure situations and do something about it. The better news is that you can develop skills that help to evaluate stressors in a more effective manner.
Appraisal of stress levels also has an impact on our performance after we have experienced a failure. When we reinterpret the meaning of our experience in a stressful situation (cognitive reappraisal), it can decrease the negative impact on us (7). The way we evaluate what happened in a negative experience is important in managing our stress response and influences our cognitive control and self-monitoring (7,8).
Let’s revisit the example of the project presentation. Imagine that you perceived the presentation as a threat and, as a result, did not do well. Let’s also imagine that your supervisor asks you to give another presentation later in the week. If you see the poor presentation experience as a temporary set back and a learning experience and view the next opportunity as a challenge, you can shift your initial negative emotional response to a positive one. This approach can help you to better manage the physical effects of stress and set you up to perform well in the second presentation.
Developing the ability to notice stress levels and appraise these situations as challenges rather than threats (cognitive appraisal) can help reduce the negative impact of stress and improve performance. Also, evaluating negative experiences as opportunities for learning rather than failures (cognitive reappraisal) focuses our attention on improving rather than continuing to fail.
The bottom line: Powerful physical effects from stress that impact us through the HPA axis and ANS described earlier can be directly influenced by the way we think about our experiences, and our performance under stress is a result of both physical and psychological responses.
Lazarus, R.S., & Folkmann, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer. (Denson, Spanovic & Miller, 2008).
Blascovich, J. & Tomaka, J. (1996). The biopsychosocial model of arousal regulation. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 28, 1-51. doi:10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60235-X (Denson, 2009)
Denson, T. M., Spanovic, M., & Miller, N. (2009). Cognitive appraisals and emotions predict cortisol and immune responses: A meta-analysis of acute laboratory social stressors and emotion inductions. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 823–853. doi: 10.1037/a0016909
Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2009). Psychoneuroimmunology: Psychology's Gateway to the Biomedical Future. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, 367-369. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01139.x
Harvey, A., Nathens, A. B., Bandiera, G., & LeBlanc, V. R. (2010). Threat and challenge: Cognitive appraisal and stress responses in simulated trauma resuscitations. Medical Education, 44(6), 587-594. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.2010.03634.x
Ochsner, K.N. et al. (2004) For better or for worse: neural systems supporting the cognitive down- and up-regulation of negative emotion. Neuroimage 23, 483–499
Wager, T. D., Davidson, M. L., Hughes, B. L., Lindquist, M. A., & Ochsner, K. N. (2008). Prefrontal-subcortical pathways mediating successful emotion regulation. Neuron, 59(6), 1037-1050. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2008.09.006