If you’re like most people living in our fast-paced world, you wish you could be less stressed. You are constantly on the lookout for ways to reduce your stress and that’s most likely why you clicked on this blog link. Perhaps you’ll learn something new to help you manage the many demands you feel on your time and energy. Or perhaps this will another one of those pop psych articles that tell you what you already knew or have read about many times before.

I don’t want to promise what I can’t deliver, but I think you’ll be honestly surprised by the six secrets to stress that I’ll reveal in this blog.  Even if you just learn from one of them, you’ll be on your way to better managing those worries, anxieties, and preoccupations that, though perhaps minor on their own, can add up to erode your mental and physical health.

Secret #1: Stress is in the mind of the beholder.

There is no event in life that is objectively stressful. Mental health experts often talk about a particular experience being the single most stressful event that can happen to a person. Researchers who measure stressful life events claim that even an experience that many people look forward to, such as a well-deserved vacation, can be stressful. The reason that a vacation can be stressful, they argue, is that it requires some sort of adaptation on your part. Any deviation from the status quo is enough to give you a bump up on such stressful life events scales.

However, other researchers believe that no event has an inherent stress value. What’s stressful to you may be neutral to me, or even possibly, something that makes me feel better.  Cognitive approaches to stress emphasize your thoughts about an event. You only feel stressed when you believe that you lack the resources to manage a threat or challenge. If you think your coping abilities are up to snuff, then you’ll be fine. It also helps to have someone to confide in, such as a long-term partner, whose support can lower yours even more by benefiting your health, as we know from research on marital problems and obesity.

Maybe you knew this already. So where’s the secret in this, you ask? The new data, hot off the presses, comes from a study published by Yale psychologist Alia Crum and team (2013). They talk about the stress “mindset,” the mental “frame or lens” that you use when you approach and understand an experience.  If you have a negative stress mindset, you believe, for example, that you should avoid stress at all costs, that it saps your energy, and that it inhibits your ability to grow. If your stress mindset is positive, you feel that it makes you healthier, and that it enhances your performance and productivity.

Crum and her colleagues found that people with a positive stress mindset were in fact better able to handle laboratory-induced stress.  In a work context, they were also more likely to seek feedback on their performance, which in turn would allow them to grow even more from their experiences, even the stress-provoking ones. The moral of the story is that if you want to handle stress more effectively, don’t label all stress as bad.  Try to look at stress with a positive mindset and you will, in fact, be better able to cope with it.

Secret #2: Stress begets stress

This next secret comes from a fascinating line of research based on what’s called the “stress generation” hypothesis.  According to this view, people play an active role in creating their own stressful life events by virtue of the way they handle their everyday life situations.  We might call this the “Debbie Downer” principle (named after the Rachel Dratch Saturday Night Live character). When you allow your internal feelings of stress to leak to your external behavior, you create an aura of negativity that drives other people away. This doesn’t mean that you have to fake being happy when you’re not (more on that shortly), but that by letting stress get to you in a chronic manner, your interactions with others can suffer.

University of Texas psychologist Marci Gleason and her collaborators recently provided evidence to support the stress generation hypothesis.  They had the unique opportunity to test over 1200 people ages 55-64 at one point in time and then follow them up 6 months later to find out how personality at Time 1 predicted life events at Time 2.  The people who had the highest personality test scores on measures of neuroticism and scales measuring borderline personality disorder had more negative events occur to them at the follow-up. Conversely, people who chronically tended to maintain a cold and distant attitude toward others (i.e. avoidant personality disorder) had fewer negative life events in the subsequent 6 months. The upshot is that by constantly worrying, being anxious, and over-reacting, you can create real havoc that continues to affect your life on a daily basis.

Secret #3: A bad mood in the morning really can ruin your day

Research shows that you can, quite literally, wake up on the wrong side of the bed. 

In a study of 29 customer service representatives employed at a call center of an insurance company, University of Pennsylvania organizational behavior professor Nancy Rothbard and Ohio State professor Stephanie Wilk (2011) tracked employees' mood changes throughout the day in response to their contact with customers.  The employees rated the emotions shown by their customers along with the way they felt after completing the call.  In addition, the organization measured the productivity of the employees in terms of how much time they made themselves available for calls after hanging up from the preceding call.

Supporting the “wake up on the right side of the bed” theory for work satisfaction, call center employees who started the day in a bad mood actually rated their customers more negatively than those who started out in a good mood.  What’s worse for their job performance, after talking to a customer who displayed negative affect, the employees were less productive in that they were more likely to take a break after such a call.  We can conclude that starting out in a bad mood leads you to feel more stressed which, in turn causes you to interpret what happens to you more negatively, which in turn leads your actual work performance to suffer. What does this mean for you? Instead of starting this vicious cycle, you need to check your bad mood at the mattress, no matter which side of it you wake up on.

Secret #4: You really do sleep more poorly when you’re stressed

Speaking of getting out of bed, let’s turn to what happens when you’re in bed at night. University of Stockholm researcher Helena Peterson headed up 2013 study in which the stress and sleep patterns of 28 teachers were intensively studied through self-ratings and sleep quality ratings completed in their homes. They compared teachers who said their sleep was negatively affected by stress (the “sensitive” group) with those who said theirs was not (the “resilient” group).  The teachers rated their days as high or low in stress, and their sleep quality was compared across those two conditions.  On weeks that they felt stressed, the teachers more sensitive to stress had poorer sleep quality, felt more tired, had more trouble waking up in the morning, and performed more poorly on tests of cognitive functioning.

The Peterson study suggests that if you’re someone whose sleep is easily disrupted by stress, the amount of stress you encounter will take a heavy toll on you during the day.  More stress during the day will lead- you guessed it- to poorer sleep, and the cycle continues. You’ll also wake up in a worse mood and as we just saw, that will impair your ability to perform well on the job.

Secret #5: Emotional labor can add to your stress levels

Organizational psychologists who study stress in the workplace use the term “emotional labor” to describe the cost to workers whose job requires them to “be nice” regardless of how they feel. Being nice is a part of most jobs, but for some it’s the main requirement.  People who work in service occupations have to put on a pleasant demeanor to the public, whether it’s as a Walmart greeter, a waitperson, or the receptionist in a medical office.

Research conducted by Tunghai University’s Kay Chu and collaborators (2012) investigated emotional labor among hospitality employees, whose jobs require that maintain a pleasant disposition, even if they’re not being treated particularly well.  The employees all worked in direct customer contact positions in one of 17 hotels on the U.S. east coast.

Hospitality workers are particularly prone to emotional labor costs because no matter how angry they feel when irate customers make outrageous demands and accusations, they have to put on a mask of deference and politeness. Their emotional labor is high enough when they’re having a good day (having gotten up on the right side of the bed, slept enough, etc.), but when the day got off to a bad start, the last thing they feel like doing is smiling when someone is screaming in their face.

Chu found that the hotel workers who tended to have a sunny disposition had lower emotional labor, because it was easy for them to be nice to their customers.  The problems occurred for people who tended toward bad moods. The job of being nice was emotionally draining as the hotel workers experienced day after day of putting on a false front to the public.  The only way these workers can lessen their stress, according to the study’s authors, is to learn how to feel genuinely more compassionate rather than to keep feeling as though they were putting on an act. Learning empathy could also help them see things from another person’s point of view and therefore feel less aggravated by customer requests.  Their better job performance could, in turn, lead to better work outcomes, improving their mood even more.

Since all roles in life involve some degree of emotional labor, the takeaway message for you is that you can benefit from being aware of the possible costs of having to act nicely, even when you don’t feel like being nice. The result may be that you’ll have less to be angry about, because your interactions will end up being more pleasant (and of course, you’ll sleep better as a result).

Secret #6: Watch out for bullies

We hear about bullying in the schools and its effect on children, and rightfully so. However, did you know that bullying in the workplace is a major source of stress for adults? University of Copenhagen researcher Annie Hogh and colleagues (2012) conducted a study on over 1,000 workers from 55 workplaces to learn about the impact of workplace bullying on physiological and psychological measures of stress. They defined workplace bullying as negative interpersonal acts on the job which victims cannot cope with or control. 

Workers in the Danish study rated the extent to which they experienced workplace bullying in the form of social isolation, direct harassment, intimidating behavior, work-related criticism, and physical violence.  They rated their psychological stress levels in terms of the extent to which they experienced intrusive thoughts, avoidance behavior, and hyper-arousal.  The researchers also measured the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).  

The findings showed definitively that all forms of workplace bullying were stressful, particularly direct harassment and intimidating behavior.  However, social isolation, which is a less obvious form of bullying also proved stressful to these workers.  Victims of social isolation may not even be aware, at first, that they are being ostracized or ignored.  Over time, though, social isolation often morphs into more direct acts of aggression in which the workplace bullies ridicule, humiliate, or become angry at the victim.

If you’re the target of bullying, it’s important to recognize the warning signs, particularly in the early stage of social isolation.  If the bullying has progressed beyond that stage, you’re now a prime candidate for stress to harm your mental and physical health. There’s no reason for you to put up with this, however. Don’t be afraid to seek support from people who can intervene on your behalf, whether it’s a supervisor or worker advocate. If you’re the bully, recognize the harm you’re creating and take that next step to reach out to your victim and find a way to make amends. Your act of kindness can help you feel better, too.

In summary, stress takes many forms, and these new studies show you how to recognize and cope with your everyday annoyances. Once you start to take control over the stress in your life, your mood will naturally improve, as will your sleep, productivity, and physical health. If stress is indeed in the mind of the beholder, then by changing your mind, you can lower your stress levels for good. 

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013

References:

Chu, K. H., Baker, M. A., & Murrmann, S. K. (2012). When we are onstage, we smile: The effects of emotional labor on employee work outcomes. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 31(3), 906-915. doi: 10.1016/j.ijhm.2011.10.009

Crum, A. J., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. doi: 10.1037/a0031201

Gleason, M. E. J., Powers, A. D., & Oltmanns, T. F. (2012). The enduring impact of borderline personality pathology: Risk for threatening life events in later middle-age. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 121(2), 447-457. doi: 10.1037/a0025564

Hogh, A., Hansen, Å. M., Mikkelsen, E. G., & Persson, R. (2012). Exposure to negative acts at work, psychological stress reactions and physiological stress response. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 73(1), 47-52. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2012.04.004

Petersen, H., Kecklund, G., D'Onofrio, P., Nilsson, J., & Åkerstedt, T. (2013). Stress vulnerability and the effects of moderate daily stress on sleep polysomnography and subjective sleepiness. Journal of Sleep Research, 22(1), 50-57. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2869.2012.01034.x

Rothbard, N. P., & Wilk, S. L. (2011). Waking up on the right or wrong side of the bed: Start-of-workday mood, work events, employee affect, and performance. Academy of Management Journal, 54(5), 959-980. doi: 10.5465/amj.2007.0056

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