Ask any great performer on the field or stage, and they’ll tell you a healthy dose of stress is key to reaching peak performance — but too much of it can make you choke. Researchers say it’s often how a person interprets a high-pressure situation, rather than the load itself, that influences how they experience stress.
Healthy stress is motivating, focuses attention, and primes our minds and bodies to face new challenges, be it taking a test, speaking in front of an audience or standing up to a bully at school. Stress turns unhealthy when it feels bigger than our ability to cope with it, fills our minds with worries and hijacks important cognitive resources that could be better spent mastering the challenge at hand.
“Anything that asks us to work at the edge of our current capacity is stressful, but that’s how we learn and grow,” says child psychologist Lisa Damour, author of “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.”
“It’s easy for kids and adults to fall into the assumption that if it doesn’t feel good, it’s bad for you,” she says. “But as anyone who has exercised knows, that’s not true. Stress, even healthy stress, doesn’t feel good in the same way that lifting weights doesn’t usually feel good.” Parents need to be at ease with the idea that their child will be uncomfortable, and that it doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong.
In fact, a growing body of research finds that how students view their stress — as helpful or harmful — can influence their academic performance. In a study published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers set out to explore whether a 10-minute stress-reducing exercise performed before an exam could help students improve their scores, especially those from lower-income backgrounds who have been found to have particularly high levels of stress and anxiety regarding tests.
Researchers studied nearly 1,200 freshmen at a large, diverse high school in the Midwest. Before their midyear and final biology exams, one group of students was given a “writing intervention” and asked to spend 10 minutes writing about their worries about the coming test. (Previous research has shown that writing about one’s anxieties helps to diminish their intensity and frees up cognitive resources.)
Another group was given a “reappraisal intervention,” where they were taught how to reinterpret their anxiety as a beneficial, energizing force. (Past studies have found that re-framing stress to a more positive view boosts performance.)
A third group of students was taught both interventions, while a control group was asked to simply ignore their stress.
The researchers found that using one of the three interventions (writing, reappraisal or both) helped anxious students better regulate their stress and significantly improved their test scores.
Study co-author Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College, says that, at home, parents can help adolescents reinterpret signs of stress in positive ways. For example, your pounding heart is not a sign that you’re about to fall on your face, but a way of delivering blood to your brain to help you better focus. Humans are “limited capacity systems,” she says, meaning we can’t really do two things well at once. By reappraising your stress and focusing on the positive, rather than spending energy ruminating on the negative, you’re able to free up the cognitive resources needed to meet the challenge.
A powerful thing a parent can do to help a student diminish unhealthy stress is to keep things proportional — talk about what is being asked of them in proportion to what it actually means, Damour says. She says it’s helpful to be explicit about putting tests into context by saying, “This test is a measure of how well you know this material today, not how well you’ll do in the future, not how much your teacher likes you or how much you like her, and not how much you are loved by us.”
To help an adolescent distinguish between helpful and harmful stress, Damour says, ask your teen to visualize life events in three buckets: things that I like, things that are a crisis and all the other things in between — these are the things they can handle. For example, if a child is having four quizzes in one week, that’s a moment a parent can say: “I understand why you don’t like this. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s not a crisis,” Damour says. “This falls into the category of being something you can handle, and I’m here to help you handle it.”
At its best, stress not only energizes us to hit challenging goals, but it can build up a store of psychological resilience that can be accessed to meet future challenges. Adolescents can build up a tolerance to stress, what researchers call stress inoculation, the way marathon runners build up their endurance: by gradually pushing themselves beyond comfortable limits, Damour says. Think of it as the difference between bringing home your first and second child. “You’ve already been stressed in this way, built up this muscle, so the second child doesn’t overwhelm you the same way,” she says.
The next time your adolescent comes home complaining about the stress she’s under, listen, validate her concerns, and then offer a more positive, adaptive view. Help her see that stress isn’t the enemy. In fact, it may be one of our most undervalued natural resources, one worth preserving to help us grow, rise to the challenges that lie ahead and push us to reach our full potential.
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