It seems that how we think about our health and our stress may in fact have an enormous impact on our wellbeing.
Recently, a patient of mine received catastrophic news – a diagnosis of an incurable form of thyroid cancer. Devastated, he began preparing himself and his family for the worst possible outcome. In a rare and miraculous turn of events 4 weeks later he was advised that in fact his diagnosis was incorrect and he was suffering from a treatable form of leukaemia. He was suddenly elated, optimistic and over joyed. Facing his battle now with this new diagnosis; he has hope, gratitude and joy; this surely will have a profound impact on the outcome of his journey.
When hearing this story, I couldn’t help but marvel at how incredibly powerful our minds are. Had he initially been faced with a leukaemia diagnosis its likely he would have been devastated; but having first faced an incurable hopeless situation and then a hopeful one; his perception of his situation has been altered. He now views his new diagnosis with joy and gratitude. It’s all about perspective – isn’t it?
Our thoughts and the way we perceive stress, is likely to have an impact on the outcome.
One of my favourite guest speakers at an annual conference I attend, highlighted a few interesting studies that I found fascinating. One of them was Elizabeth Blackburn’s work on telomere anti-aging theories and the impact that stress has on our long term health.
According to Blackburn et al; the associations between “stress and cell aging have clinically significant implications for human health”. In this study it was found that in healthy women “psychological stress is associated with indicators of accelerated cellular aging” and it was concluded that at a “cellular level, stress may promote earlier onset of age-related diseases”.1
What I was curious about though was the conversation around the difference between actual stress and perceived stress.
So what exactly is the difference?
Perceived stress is the perception that one has of their own stress, “it is a measure of the degree to which situations in one’s life are appraised as stressful”.2
In fact, one of the studies examines the relationship between the amount of stress an individual experiences and whether or not they perceive that stress affects their health. It was concluded that the perception that stress affects one’s health is different to the amount of stress actually experienced. Stress affects individuals differently and what I might find stressful; may not in fact be stressful to another. In addition to this it seems that if we BELIEVE that the stress we are experiencing has a negative impact on our health, that too may affect us. So it’s not only what the stress is but how we think about it!3 Interestingly Dumas et al investigated the relationship between age, oestrogen and the stress response and found that the results suggested that “estradiol may play a significant role in modulating emotional reactivity to stressful events and that this effect persists in older women”.4
Carol S Dweck, world renowned Stanford University psychologist, in her bestseller on “Mindset” – describes years of research on the power of our mindset. She relates in her book the differences between the flexible versus the fixed mindset, and the life-changing advantages there are to having a flexible mindset. People with a flexible mindset seem to embrace failure and change. They see failure as a challenge and an opportunity to grow. Whereas people with a fixed mindset tend to give up when faced with failure because it seems to define them.5
So too, can stress be perceived from a fixed or a flexible mindset and so too, can this have an impact on your health and wellbeing.
Start asking yourself – how you perceive your stress. Is it possible that the perception of the stress may be more damaging to you than the actual stress itself?
Remember that the way in which we perceive stress has an impact too on our health and our sense of wellbeing.
- Epel ES, Blackburn EH et al, 2004, “Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress”PNAS, 101(49), 17312-17315
- Cohen S, 1994, perceived stress scale, hosted by mind garden.
- Keller A et al, 2012. “Does perception that Stress Affects health matter? The association with health and mortality” Health Psychol, University of Wisconsin, 31(5);677-684 in PUBMED
- Dumas JA et al, 2012, “The Effects of Age and Estrogen on Stress Responsivity in older women”AM J Geriatric Psychiatry, 20(9): 734-743 in PUBMED
- Carol Dweck, mindset, revised edition 2017, McPhersons printing group.