Have you ever wondered how sometimes you end up feeling completely overwhelmed by stress, but at other times you manage to push through and surpass yourself? Here we take a look at one of the main influencing factors in this – your thoughts.

The role of thoughts

As early as the 4th century BC, Aristotle is thought to have been the first person to identify the role of beliefs in generating an emotional response to threat

In the years since then, psychological research has provided us with loads of evidence to back up Aristotle’s claim. How we feel and how we act depends on how we look at a situation.

When we perceive something as a threat, either physical or psychological, the stress response is triggered.

Imagine being told you are going to have to give a presentation at short notice. It would not be unusual for you to feel unprepared and worry about what might go wrong. Thinking about it may make your stomach flip over, and you might feel sweaty or notice your heart beating faster. These sensations make you feel uncomfortable and anxious. You think of more things that could go wrong and in turn get even more stressed about it…

This is where an understanding of the role our own thoughts in this process can be helpful. How we think about stressful events and our reactions to them affect not only our ability to respond resiliently to the immediate challenges we face as in the example above, but can also impact on our longer-term health and longevity.

How thoughts about stress can work against you

As you can see from the example, when we are faced with threat or challenge we can become hooked into negative thoughts not just about the situation but also about our physiological responses and the impact of these on our ability to cope.

This can become a vicious cycle of negative thinking that leads to increasing arousal levels, negative emotions and hyper-vigilance for threat.

Research shows that thinking about our stress responses in a negative way can contribute not only to a short-term detrimental impact on our performance as in the example, but can also play an important role in our longer-term health and wellbeing. A whopping 43% of people studied in a large research project in the USA who reported both high-stress levels and a belief that stress is bad for your health showed increased risk of premature death.

Fortunately this is not the whole story. Research shows we can learn to reappraise not only how we think about stressful situations but also how we think about our physiological responses to them, breaking the vicious cycle of negative thinking and emotion and allowing our physiological responses to work for us rather than against us.

How thoughts about stress can work for you

It is important to know that our physiological responses to stress are actually an adaptive coping mechanism that protects us in times of challenge and threat by improving our memory and concentration and our ability to focus and think clearly. Top athletes are able to harness and mobilise these characteristics of the stress response to help them achieve great things.

Although we are not all top athletes, we all have the capacity to notice our unhelpful negative thoughts and to find ways of seeing the situation and our reactions to it that help us rather than hinder us.

So, what happens if you try to see the situation above differently? Maybe you focus on how you did a similar presentation a few weeks ago and it went well? Or perhaps you think that your boss has asked you to do it because they know you are capable of it. Knowing how increased arousal can improve performance you may perceive your raised heart rate as a sign of excitement or an indicator that you will be able to focus.

Research on students taking an exam has shown that those who reappraise their stress symptoms, seeing them as being helpful to them do better than students who do not use this strategy. Similarly, people with social anxiety who were asked to do a presentation did better and were less agitated when instructed to view their symptoms in a more positive way.

By reappraising the situation and your responses to it in this way your physiological arousal is more likely to remain at an optimal level allowing you to concentrate on what you need to do and to rise to the challenge.

These ideas about reappraisal are not new and form the basis of a range of psychological therapy models in which people are taught to change the way they think in order to feel and manage better.

In addition, people who learn to view their stress responses as aiding performance, tend to recover more quickly from stressful situations and deal with future acute threat situations more effectively

So what have thoughts got to do with stress? They can be either the hooks that undermine our ability to cope, or the helpers that offer us an opportunity to be the best we can be. Either way, they give us choice.

You can read more about some of the research on stress and thoughts here.