Stress will hurt your health — only if you think it will, researchers say

60% of Singaporean staff experience above average stress levels, according to a 2017 survey conducted by Willis Towers Watson’s.

High stress levels are not only detected in working adults. Experts have observed a rise in the number of stressed-out children and youth in Singapore. The immense stress that they face has been proven to be detrimental to their health.

Stress can trigger anxiety, depression and self-harming behaviour, and cause sleep problems, social withdrawal, angry outbursts and obsessive-compulsive behaviours.

In 2016, a Primary 5 student committed suicide by jumping 17 floors from his bedroom window after failing his exams.

We are moving towards a society where an increasing number of us face mental health problems that stem from high stress levels. How should we deal with stress?

Studies have shown that the best way to deal with stress is to change our perception of it.

The University of Wisconsin conducted a study that involved 30,000 Americans. Researchers asked them how much stress they had experienced in the past year and whether they believed stress was harming their health.

The researchers concluded that people in the study who were exposed to large amounts of stress and viewed the stress as harmful had 43% higher risk of dying than people who viewed stress as a helpful response.

More interestingly, the group of people who had a positive perception of stress had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those with little stress.

A separate paper published in 2016 titled ‘Negative Stress Beliefs Predict Somatic Symptoms in Students Under Academic Stress‘ showed that students with more negative beliefs about stress experienced more somatic symptoms, such as headaches, tension and fatigue during a stressful end-of-semester exam period, as compared to students who had more positive beliefs about stress.

These two studies have proven that stress itself is not actually bad. It is the belief that stress is bad that is bad.

Kelly McGonigal, psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, recently published her new book The Upside of Stress where she talks about creating a mindset shift around stress.

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