Hendrie Weisinger Ph.D.

Thicken Your Skin

The Upside of Stress ...Not Really... a partial book review

The Upside of Stress is really the Upside of Cognitive Appraisal

Posted May 31, 2015

     The Wall Street Journal recently published an excerpt from the book, The Upside of Stress with a subtitle, Why Stress is Good For You and How to Get Good At It. The information would have been better served if titled the "Upside of Cognitive Appraisal."  I did not read the book, so my comments are based on the Journal’s excerpt that I assume represents the book’s thesis and scope.  My assumption is that when it comes to book excerpts, the publisher and author are influential in the content selected.

     The book’s author makes the point that stress does not have to be detrimental; it can be positive if you think of a "stressful situation” as a “challenge”; if you do so, you will feel better and be more motivated.  Some familiar studies that are frequently cited in many current books (including my own) are used to support her point, although an older generation of psychologists, especially those from clinical and counseling psychology programs have long known that philosophers and a long line of psychologists such as Albert Ellis and Donald Meichenbaum have already told us that how you appraise a situation determines whether it effects you for good or ill so the basic premise is not new but there are obviously a lot of young psychologists who do not know the aforementioned names, especially if schooled in newer fields, such as Health Psychology.  

     My concern, though, is not lack of psychological originality but with the point that the author equates feeling better and increased productivity with the “upside of stress”.  I believe she errors here to the point that if the book were a dissertation proposal, a serious criticism would halt it.

     Namely, once you "cognitively reframe" stress as a challenge or opportunity, you are no longer speaking about stress --- you are in fact speaking about a different psychological construct: "challenge," so naturally different responses ---mental, physical, and behavioral occur.  

     Challenge and stress are different psychological constructs and a literature review would demonstrate there are countless studies on each construct.  Researchers, for example, in the area of psychological wellness have long studied the construct of challenge.  In effect, the author has confounded the stress construct with the challenge construct.  A person might hate vanilla ice cream and transforming the ice cream with different ingredients to chocolate ice cream might give the person a more favorable taste but that is not the upside of vanilla ice cream –it is the upside of a different ice cream.

    The author is actually pointing out the upside and power of cognitive appraisal ---the process of interpreting the events around you.  Interpret a situation negatively or threatening, an individual produces one set of responses.  Interpret the same situation as an opportunity or challenge and the individual produces a different set of responses because he or she is responding to a different construct.

     A cardiologist is not going to tell a patient with health problems to go on a rigorous mountain climb and he will be ok if he remembers he is on a “challenge.”  The patient’s body will still feel stressed regardless of his perception of the situation.  The author seems to perceive stress as simply being a cognitive experience, but it is a physical experience too, independent of how the the situation is interpreted, the body still responds physically.  Many people have had a heart attack when they are enjoying a tennis game, or for that matter, during sex. Furthermore, nobody comes home and says to their partner, “Hey, could you give me some more stress,” and I’ve yet to hear an executive say, “I love the stress of my job,” but I frequently hear, “I love the challenges of my job.”  We like challenges and we do not like stress ---that is human nature.

     When you consider that The APA Monitor has recently reported studies indicating students are under more stress and pressure than ever before and many colleges and universities lack the resources to respond to the needs of their students, that schools such as MIT are actively trying to help students manage their stress, and studies recently published in esteemed sources such as Knowledge@Wharton that report the negative effects of stress in the workplace are rampant, it is clear, at least to me that the downside of stress is pretty down.

     There is an Upside to Stress but it is not the result of calling stress a challenge or developing a pre-routine (both strategies that I too recommend in my book).  The evolutionary function of stress provides its "upside" --- to arouse us to action, what Harvard professor and chairman of The Department of Physiology , Walter Cannon, called his 1932 published book, The Wisdom of the Body, the flight--fight response.  Stress arouses us so we can meet the demands of our environment. The very first demand made upon man was survival.  Confronted with a Saber Tooth Tiger, nature demanded he either fight or flee successfully if he were to advance, and for sure, if you were not aroused, you would not have the energy to do either.  

      Providing arousal for action is the upside of stress and ever since the Yerkes-Dodson law in 1908, it has been known that stress arousal can be beneficial and detrimental.  Thus, parents and managers who increase stress (demands) on their "lazy kids or staff" are arousing them for the purpose of performing to their capability --- is an example of how to apply the upside of stress."  Parents and manager who makes a lot of "demands" on his or her staff is putting a lot of stress on them, as do partners who demand a lot from each other.  Learning how to apply the arousal of stress is how you get the Upside of Stress.

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