No, stress isn’t always bad. Here’s how to exploit it. : Information Center

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September 14, 2021

Reframing a stress response like sweaty hands or a pounding heart can make a big difference to a person’s mental health, overall well-being, and success, according to psychologists at the University of Rochester. (Illustration by University of Rochester / Julia Joshpe)


Rochester psychologists find that students who reinterpret their stress response as improving performance are less anxious and generally healthier.

Sweaty palms during a job interview. Running heartbeat before walking down the aisle. Stomach pain before a final exam. Many of us have experienced a classic stress reaction under new, unusual or high pressure circumstances.

But reassessing how you perceive stress can make a big difference to a person’s mental health, overall well-being and success, according to Rochester University psychologists.

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Learn more or participate in the research efforts of the University of Rochester Social stress lab.

In the news

Rochester psychologist Jeremy Jamieson spoke about stress and its benefits on the WXXI Connections radio program and also on the scientific program PBS CQFD with Dr B.

For their latest study, which appears in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Rochester researchers trained teens and young adults at a community college to treat their stress response as a tool rather than a barrier. The team found that in addition to reducing their anxiety, this “good stress” mindset reset helped students perform better on tests, procrastinate less, stay enrolled in classes and stay in class. meet academic challenges in a healthier way.

To reframe their understanding of stress, students performed a standardized reading and writing exercise that taught them that their stress responses had a function in performance contexts that applied directly to them, such as taking tests. .

“We use a ‘saying is believing’ approach where participants learn about the adaptive benefits of stress and are invited to write about how it can help them achieve their goals,” says the lead author. Jeremy Jamieson, associate professor of psychology at Rochester and senior researcher at the University Social stress lab. He studies how experiences of stress affect decisions, emotions and performance. The study is based on its previous research on optimizing responses to stress.


Questions and answers

Stress often gets a bad rap. How can stress really be a good thing?

Conventional thinking suggests that stress is inherently bad and should always be avoided. However, this can sometimes be misguided, as stress is a normal and even defining feature of modern life. For example, a student preparing for his first job interview may perceive his pounding heart and sweaty palms as signs that he is nervous and about to ‘bomb’ when, in fact, the stress response. helps deliver oxygen to the brain and release hormones that mobilize energy.

Throughout life, people must acquire a wide and varied range of complex social and intellectual skills, and then apply these skills in order to thrive. This process is inherently stressful, but it is also essential for being a productive member of society. Additionally, if people simply disengaged from the stressors they were facing, it could put them at a serious disadvantage. So, in order for people to thrive in modern life and overcome threats to their personal and global survival, they must find a way to embrace and overcome stressful demands.

What exactly is stress reassessment?

People experience an increase in sympathetic arousal – which can be sweaty palms or a faster heartbeat – during stressful situations. Instead of seeing everything as “bad” stress, stress responses, including arousal to stress, can be beneficial in terms of psychological, biological, performance and behavioral outcomes.

Stress reassessment is not intended to eliminate or alleviate stress. It does not encourage relaxation, but rather focuses on changing the type of stress response: if we think we have enough resources to meet the demands that are presented to us, it doesn’t matter if the demands are high, if we think that we can handle them, our body will respond with the response to the challenge, which means that stress is seen as a challenge rather than a threat.

Head of Jeremy Jamieson.

Psychology professor Jeremy Jamieson studies how experiences and responses to stress affect decisions, emotions and performance. (Photo by University of Rochester / J. Adam Fenster)

What happened to the “reassessment” students compared to the control group?

In our study of community college students taking math courses, we found that reassessment participants had lower levels of math assessment anxiety both immediately and on a subsequent exam. They also performed better on the examination than the control group immediately after completing our reassessment exercise.

We then assessed procrastination and goals outside of the classroom. While we only measured procrastination once – so I can’t speak to the lagged effects there – re-assessment students reported procrastinating less, which then predicted higher scores on their next review.

We also found that re-assessed students reported more approach goals, that is, goals focused on getting positive results, such as winning a game or passing a test, rather than winning a test. avoiding negative results, such as trying not to lose a match or fail a test, which predicts positive results in terms of performance and well-being.

You looked at the levels of cortisol and testosterone in both of your groups. What did you find?

Generally speaking, cortisol is a catabolic stress hormone and elevations are seen when people are threatened. Thus, it is often interpreted as an indicator of “negative stress” although it is not always “bad”, whereas testosterone is an anabolic hormone which promotes optimal performance.

We observed that reassessment manipulation resulted in increased testosterone and decreased cortisol in students for classroom exam situations, which is a useful model for performing at its peak.

What are your most important findings, especially in the context of academic stressors?

Mitigating the negative effects of stress in school settings with a student population not getting as much attention in the stress regulation literature showed real promise. Community colleges can be stepping stones to long-term success, and providing students at these institutions with tools to help them achieve their goals has the potential to improve their quality of life many years later.

More generally, the promotion of STEM achievement and skills is an area of ​​central interest to the American education system. Our data suggests that we can do difficult things and should tackle difficult challenges rather than trying to eliminate stressors.

“Normalizing stressful experiences and overcoming obstacles can help children understand that they can do difficult things. “

How might your findings on stress responses be used in schools or colleges?

Many schools are already incorporating forms of social psychological interventions like these, such as growth mindsets and mindfulness practices.

However, more emphasis can be placed not only on alleviating stressors in students’ lives, such as eliminating exams, but also on supporting students in their struggle to acquire skills and knowledge. difficult knowledge. Stress optimization tools seek to encourage positive engagement with difficult stressors to support this growth process.

What advice do you have for parents whose children are stressed and anxious, especially now during the pandemic?

The first step is to separate stress from distress and anxiety. Stress is simply the body’s response to any demand, good or bad. Excitement is a state of stress, just like anxiety.

It’s also important for parents to understand that struggles are normal and can even promote growth with the right support. No one innovates and thrives without stepping out of their comfort zone. In order for children to grow, learn and succeed, they will need to be engaged and take on difficult tasks. The goal should not be to help children get an A, but rather to push the limits of their knowledge and ability. Taking that tough math class and getting an average grade may be more important to long-term success than just taking an easy class and doing well.

Normalizing stressful experiences and overcoming obstacles can help children understand that they can do difficult things. Reduce stress by removing obstacles, such as eliminating exams, facilitating lessons, etc. can even hinder their progress.


The US Department of Education funded the study. In addition to lead author Jamieson, the research team consisted of the Rochester psychology professor Harry reis, and Rochester graduate students and members of the Social Stress Lab: Alexandra Black, Hannah gravel, Jonathan gordils, and Libbey Pelaia.


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Key words: Arts and Sciences, Department of Psychology, Post-Side Feature, Jeremy Jamieson, Research Result

Category: Highlighted


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