What Is The Right Way To Think About Stress?

Christopher Kilby discusses new research that seeks a better definition for stress.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | November 8, 2021

A new article published in the Journal of Health Psychology attempts to catalog the different ways people conceptualize stress, and how these conceptualizations, or mental models of stress, might affect people's ability to cope with stress in their lives.

I recently spoke with Christopher Kilby, a researcher and senior lecturer at The Cairnmillar Institute and lead author of the paper, to discuss these findings in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of how people think about stress and what did you find?

Any two people can respond differently to the same stressful situation, and similarly, any one person may respond differently to different stressful situations. On top of this, some people experience negative effects of stress whereas others experience positive effects. This variability in how we experience and respond to stress has always fascinated me and understanding this variability has become a key focus of my research.

In my post-graduate studies at Macquarie University (under the supervision of Prof. Kerry Sherman and Prof. Viviana Wuthrich), I stumbled across the work of Alia Crum on Stress Mindset which positioned that our beliefs about the consequences of stress may indirectly affect how we respond to stressful situations. The more I thought about the work, the more I realized that there is so much potential for this idea beyond just responses to stress. I started by looking at whether our beliefs about stress, in general, were associated with the way that we interpret or perceive specific stressful situations (for example, perhaps if I believe that stress negatively affects my health, then I will be more likely to see a job interview as threatening than if I did not hold this belief about stress). This association is important because our theories of stress suggest that the way we perceive a stressful situation will influence how we cope with that stressful situation. We found mixed support for this notion, with stress beliefs being related to how threatening we see stressful situations but not how challenging we perceive them to be. Research by others in this space also struggled to find full support for the idea that stress beliefs should be associated with how threatening and challenging we perceive stressful situations to be.

More recently, I have been looking at how we define and measure stress beliefs. I conducted a systematic literature review of stress belief research and conducted a set of interviews with people to explore their beliefs about stress. What we found was that people have a range of beliefs about stress that go far beyond just the consequences of stress. Our interviews identified five broad categories of beliefs:

  1. Cognition (the relationship between stress and how we think)
  2. Emotion (such as how stress created a sense of excitement for some people)
  3. Social factors (like whether being around other people who are stressed can make us feel stressed)
  4. Coping efficacy (as in how we manage feelings of stress)
  5. Physical health (how our body changes under stress, such as how eating or sleeping changes)

In all five categories, people held beliefs about how that category could trigger stress (for example, whether ruminating about something that happened a long time ago can make us feel stressed today), how it could change the experience of stress (for example, whether being upset before a stressful situation started would make that situation more stressful than if the person was not upset), and a consequence of the situation (for example, believing that stress makes it harder to multitask). In most instances, different people held different views on the same belief (e.g., some people believed that stress makes them very focused on the task at hand by helping them to stop thinking about everything else, whereas others believed that stress made their mind race which made it hard to focus on anything).

Since then, I have revisited my earlier work to see whether this broader conceptualization of stress beliefs that I had identified would be associated with how we perceive stressful situations. The work is currently under review for publication, but our findings supported the notion that our beliefs about stress were associated with how threatening and challenging we perceive stressful situations to be. Specifically, we found that the more positive your beliefs are about stress, the more challenging and less threatening we perceive stressful situations.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone struggling with stress?

Research has shown for some time now that changing how you think about a specific stressful situation can benefit how we manage feeling stressed. By acknowledging when we are having unhelpful thoughts about a stressful situation (e.g., there is nothing I can do) and trying to replace those with more helpful thoughts (e.g., maybe there is someone I can reach out to for help), we may be able to manage that stressful situation better. But this is hard to do and it is strongly recommended to reach out to a therapist for help in learning this skill. There are other approaches as well, like mindfulness and mindful meditation that aims to help us (among other things) acknowledge our thoughts and feelings as separate to ourselves.

But many of these approaches are reactive — they happen after we have started to experience stress. The big difference with changing people's beliefs about stress is that changing beliefs may help to minimize the unhelpful thoughts from arising in the first place. However, we still need more research to demonstrate whether changing our beliefs about stress does in fact produce meaningful and lasting changes in how we experience and cope with stress. Research by other people in this space has started to suggest that changing your beliefs about stress to more positive beliefs (e.g., feeling stressed means your body is empowered and strengthened to manage the challenges ahead) is associated with people coping better with stress and feeling better during stress. But the research is very preliminary.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people looking to live a more stress-free life?

Try not to think about living stress-free. Stress is a necessary part of life. We are just as productive with too much stress (due to anxiety) as we are with no stress at all (due to lack of motivation), rather we need that sweet spot, we need just enough stress to keep us going. Try to think about stress as a motivator to act, as extra fuel that you can call upon to get through your day, as energy that you can harness.

What are the upsides, if any, to stress?

Surprisingly, stress can positively affect all the same things that it negatively affects. Productivity, motivation, our ability to think clearly and quickly, immune functioning, metabolism, how quickly our wounds heal, how quickly our muscles recover after working out, and more. But, more often than not, we see people presenting with the negative (rather than the positive) sides of stress. That is why this research is so important. We need to understand how we can help communities of people to capitalize on all of these positives of stress and minimize the negatives. Stress beliefs might just be one of several ways that we could do this.

What other personality traits are related to stress or beliefs about stress?

This is a huge area of research in stress, and I certainly cannot do it all justice. I published a review of personality predictors of how we perceive stressful situations. Being able to regulate our emotions (change how we feel) and having more stable emotions were consistently associated with perceiving stressful situations as more challenging and less threatening. There were other findings, such as believing the world is a just place or being more extroverted, but the research was either mixed or there was only one published study on the effect. We know that a range of other personality traits is associated with stress more broadly. For example, those who are more self-compassionate, who are more resilient, and who have higher levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy are better able to cope with stress.

How does your research connect with, and inform, other research on stress?

Whenever I think of this question, a quote from Hans Selye (one of the pioneers in stress research) comes to mind: Everybody knows what stress is and nobody knows what it is.

The word stress, like success, failure, or happiness, means different things to different people and, except for a few specialized scientists, no one has really tried to define it although it has become part of our daily vocabulary.

Is it effort, fatigue, pain, fear, the need for concentration, the humiliation of censure, loss of blood, or even an unexpected success that requires a complete reformulation of one's life? The answer is yes and no. That is what makes the definition of stress so difficult. Every one of these conditions can produce stress and yet none of them can be singled out as being 'it' since the word applies equally to all others as well.

The quote was made in 1973 and yet we are still trying to understand exactly what stress is. My work builds upon existing theories of stress and suggests a new way that those differences in how we experience stress may arise. To that extent, my work is trying to better define stress beliefs and to demonstrate how they fit into the stress response. To date, my work informs other researchers interested in understanding individual differences in how we experience and respond to stress, but it also informs intervention research focused on developing new ways to help people cope with stress. But we really are still at that stage of understanding exactly what is stress and learning about our beliefs about stress is just part of that puzzle.

How might your research inform clinical efforts to improve stress?

Not only does my research reinforce current clinical efforts in changing how we think about stressful situations, but the research into stress beliefs more broadly is starting to imply that we should also look at changing how clients think about stress as a general concept.

Without the proper research, it is not possible to say that changing stress beliefs at this point will produce meaningful change, but the research is certainly starting to suggest this. The other way this research informs clinical efforts is acknowledging that there is a range of beliefs that people hold about stress and that these beliefs are varied and complex and may differ from our psychological understanding of stress. Acknowledging that clients will present with their own views of stress may help clinicians better communicate with clients.

I would like to say that I can see ways of developing large-scale interventions, such as school-based programs or workplace programs, but I think there are a lot of questions left unanswered that we would need to consider first. For example, we really do not know how changing beliefs about stress will affect someone in other areas of their life. If promoting more positive beliefs about stress is associated with perceiving less threat in stressful situations, this might be a benefit for adults. But, for many teenagers, adolescence is a time marked by an already compromised ability to detect and respond to threat (and, in turn, an increase in risk-taking behavior), further reducing one's perceptions of threat through changing stress beliefs may then be seen as a potentially risky endeavor.

Research by others is currently looking into what the 'optimal' set of stress beliefs might be, and initial findings are suggesting that a mix of both positive and negative beliefs about stress are necessary so that we can detect threat where threat exists, but while not losing sight of the challenges and benefits of stress. But, again, we are only just scratching the surface with understanding what this means. So, watch this space.