Stress (huh)…What is it good for…?

There are so many articles on stress and poor mental health in the press, that you can be forgiven for being overwhelmed.

The Damaging Cost of Stress

According to the centre for Mental Health, stress and mental health problems cost UK business costs an estimated £34.9 billion a year through staff absence, turnover and reduced productivity. On an individual level, according to the American Psychological Association, as well as the short term effects, stress can contribute to longer-term health issues including Chronic Pain; Respiratory diseases;  Cardiovascular disease; Diabetes; Gastrointestinal problems; reproduction problems and even cancer. So it is absolutely critical that we do something about it.

Most articles try to do this by raising the awareness of the public to mental health. Advice encourages us to adopt coping mechanisms to reduce the effects of stress and urges us to make changes to our lives to reduce the amounts of stress we are subjected to.

A Better Way: Harnessing Mental Toughness

This awareness and advice is important, but the main issue with most of the current debate is that it actually increases how stressed people feel. By raising the awareness of stress it can actually make people focus on it more and increase how stressed they feel. Whilst asking people to make fundamental changes in their lives might feel impossible and thus debilitating.

What most articles fail to talk about, because it is not widely understood, is resilience, more robustly described as mental toughness.

According to the work of Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, the relationship between the performance and pressure of an individual can be represented in the diagram below.

Up to a certain point, pressure is an enabler. It gives us a reason to get out of bed and has a positive effect on performance. However, at a certain point this reaches a peak and if pressure continues to build, it starts to have a negative effect on our performance.

Most of the advice stems from the assumption that this curve is static, that to reduce the negative effects of pressure on me, I need to reduce the amount of stress in my environment, or care less about things so that I don’t put pressure on myself. Whilst, in the short term, this is a helpful form of ‘first aid’, it provides no positive path to develop an ability to perform under pressure. 

Using Mental Toughness to Build Resilience

Recent understanding and research has shown that mental toughness can erode and can be developed, meaning that over time the size of an individual’s curve can shrink or grow. What this means is that we can develop the ability to perform well under, and enjoy, a level of pressure we currently find too stressful, we just need to build our resilience.

This provides a much more positive and enabling path to self-development for those who are currently suffering with stress and the effects of poor mental health. As a result, they can build their resilience and enjoy the pressure they are currently struggling with, without having to make fundamental changes to their lives or their values.

In the next article, we will spend more time understanding mental toughness and explain how individuals can develop their own levels of resilience.