Make stress work for you

It's hard to escape stress in modern life, but new research shows a change of mindset, not a change of job, could be just what you need to feel more zen – with no chanting involved.

In 2008 Noel (not his real name), now 41, felt like his world was falling apart. “I was working ridiculous hours, there were issues at home and a big deal I had been working on for years fell through,” explains the sales representative with an insurance firm.

“It was a really hard time. The stress was starting to take its toll on my relationship with my family and I wasn't coping."

For anyone working in a post-GFC climate, this probably isn't an unfamiliar feeling.

Brett Scholz, a lecturer in psychology at University of Canberra, explains that for many men, work-related stress is a daily reality.

“One of the major themes I see in my work is that men are really affected by stress – there are increasing demands at work, less job security and higher levels of debt now than ever before,” he says.

In fact, a 2009 Lifeline survey showed that nearly 90 per cent of Australians feel "unhealthily" stressed, and the majority of that was caused by their career.

While short-term stress is fine, in the longer term it has been linked to depression, reduced immune function, high blood pressure, inflammation, heart disease and even cancer, says Scholz.

Of course we know the things we're supposed to do to counteract it: work less, breathe deeply and exercise. But the reality is, unless we quit our jobs and move to an ashram, there's not always time to commit to such tactics – in this economic climate leaving at 5:30pm every day just isn't feasible.


Thankfully, recent research has shown you don't need to change your life to reduce stress. You just need to change how you think about it.

A study released at the end of last year by Pennsylvania State University found that situations don't cause stress, it's how people react to them that does the damage.

The researchers interviewed 2000 people about their day every night for a week in 1995, and again in 2005. They also monitored the stress hormone cortisol and the participant's health.

Their results showed that how you react to what happens to you today and how long you dwell on issues, whether that's a fight with your boss or an 18-hour-work day, will affect how healthy you are in 10 years.

“Reducing exposure to stressors isn't the answer," lead research David Almeida explained in a media release, "we just need to figure out how to manage them better."

Stuart Mitchell, a corporate trainer with Authentic Training Solutions who works to improve men's mental health through the Mankind Project, agrees that mindset plays an important role in counteracting stress.

“The way we perceive what's happening in our life has the biggest impact on how we feel,” he says.

“By recognising that we have created the situation we're in, and have the power to change it, is very important.”

And, in fact, not all stress is bad, he adds.

“Stress can help you get things done, focus better and work harder. It's only when it's a long-term thing that it becomes damaging.”

Remembering this could also keep you sane when things get manic in the office, according to research by Yale University scientists.

Their March 2013 study found that those who believed stress was good for them had better health, life satisfaction and work performance than those who only thought about the negative effects of stress.

For Noel, changing how he thought about his work and life has led to more control.

On the verge of a breakdown four years ago, he spoke to a counsellor and realised he couldn't keep waiting for his life to get less busy in order to fix things.

“Now I start my week sitting by myself with a coffee, writing down what needs to get done. I find having 100 things to do written down is better than 50 in your head,” he explains.

“I definitely don't work less than before but I cope better now. I finally feel like I've found some balance.”