I don’t think it’s controversial to say that many of us have experienced more mental, physical and financial stress during 2020 than in previous years. We are perhaps more aware than we’ve ever been of the negative impacts stress, and its associated cortisol or inflammatory spike, can have on our health, as well as our mental state.

Oxford Languages define stress as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. Here’s the thing though: we evolved to adapt to adverse or demanding circumstances. After all, whether we are talking about significant trauma or small, cumulative day-to-day stressors, life is pretty much defined by them.

This is not new information. You know that you can adjust your physiology in order to survive, for example by sweating and directing blood flow to your skin in higher than optimal temperatures, or shivering and directing blood flow to your core in lower temperatures. But more than that, you know that facing a challenge can actually help you thrive. Lifting heavy weights prompts your muscles to grow stronger. Running regularly forces your cardiovascular system to work more efficiently, or become fitter. Intermittent fasting is an example of harnessing positive adaptations to controlled nutrient deprivation. Being exposed to an illness or a vaccine for that illness triggers your body to mount an immune response that reduces your future vulnerability to that illness. And the more often you practice a difficult or complex task—like driving, playing an instrument, moving through a yoga asana practice, or a giving a presentation—the more skilled your body and mind become at it.

All of these situations describe exposing ourselves to stress, and benefiting from it. Even extreme stress can trigger changes that psychologists call post-traumatic growth. Yet we also know that negative outcomes are possible. For example, when the temperature exceeds our body’s ability to respond by sweating or shivering, hypo- and hyperthermia can set in. Likewise, germs and viruses can overwhelm our immune response and make us sick, and traumatic events don’t always result in growth, and can in fact create deep emotional or psychological wounds.

But lack of exposure to stress doesn’t protect us from negative outcomes. If we don’t stress our systems with sufficient exercise, for example, we lose cardiovascular fitness, muscle tone, and even bone mass. If we live such hygienic lives that we aren’t exposed to pathogens, we can’t build immunity to them. And if we don’t present our minds with new information or the chance to try new skills, we end up with far fewer tools in our mental toolkit.

Imagine a bell curve. On the left side are low stress levels, translating into few learning opportunities or positive adaptations. On the right side are high stress levels, providing so many challenges that they overwhelm our capacity to respond, resulting in negative outcomes for body and mind. But in the middle is the golden zone, where our physical and mental systems receive enough stimulus to encourage growth. This concept, known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, is well established in psychology.

Stress itself is not inherently harmful; whether the outcome of stress is positive or negative depends on the dose versus our capacity to respond.

We can’t always control the dose of stress we are exposed to, but can influence our capacity to respond to it. Research suggests several personal and lifestyle factors can provide us with a buffer against the negative results of stress, including good physical health, financial resources, supportive social connections, gratitude and mindfulness practices (including prayer and meditation), an orientation toward optimism and a sense of humor.

Of course some of these factors are within our control and some are not, but there’s an additional protective factor that may surprise you: our perception of stress has huge influence over our response to it. Research indicates that if we perceive a challenging situation as an opportunity for learning and growth, we don’t just improve our mindset, we alter the biochemical reaction in our body including a decreased cortisol response.

2020 has been a tough year for many people and there are undoubtedly more challenges ahead. While we can do our best to maintain our health, community connections, gratitude and optimism, there’s no magic solution to stress, no positive thinking quick fix to eradicate its impact on us. But reframing the role stress plays in our lives can help. Adverse and demanding circumstances are not only inevitable, they are in many ways desirable. They create the conditions we evolved not only to survive, but to thrive in. So rather than adding stress itself to the list of burdens in your life, ask yourself whether any of the circumstances you face are giving you an opportunity to learn, and grow.

References and further reading:

Chan, Cecilia L W, Chan Timothy H Y, Ng Siv Man (2008). The Strength-Focused and Meaning-Oriented Approach to Resilience and Transformation (SMART): A Body-Mind-Spirit Approach to Trauma Management. Social Work in Health Care.

Crum, A. J., Akinola, M., Martin, A., & Fath, S. (2017). The Role of Stress Mindset in Shaping Cognitive, Emotional, and Physiological Responses to Challenging and Threatening Stress. Anxiety, Stress and Coping.

Crum, A. J., Corbin, W., Brownell, K., & Salovey, P. (2011). Mind over milkshakes: Mindsets, not actual nutrients, determine ghrelin response. Health Psychology.

Crum, A. J., & Langer, E. J. (2007). Mind-Set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science.

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.

Dienstbier, R. A. (1989). Arousal and physiological toughness: Implications for mental and physical health. Psychological Review.

Epel, E. S., McEwen, B. S., & Ickovics, J. R. (1998). Embodying psychological thriving: Physical thriving in response to stress. Journal of Social Issues.

Hamby, S., Grych, J., & Banyard, V. (2018). Resilience portfolios and poly-strengths: Identifying protective factors associated with thriving after adversity. Psychology of Violence.

McEwen, B. S., & Seeman, T. (1999). Protective and damaging effects of mediators of stress: Elaborating and testing the concepts of allostasis and allostatic load. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Park, D., Yu, A., Metz, A., Tsukayama, E., Crum, A. J., & Duckworth, A. (2017). Beliefs about Stress Attenuate the Relation Among Adverse Life Events, Perceived Distress, and Self-Control. Child Development.

Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., & Siegel, S. D. (2005). Stress and health: Psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology.