Stress - Toxic or Beneficial?

Stress - Toxic or Beneficial?

Hi, my name is Dr Nathan Illman, founder of Nurse Wellbeing Mission. I’m a Clinical Psychologist and Self-Compassion Coach for nurses and midwives.
In this article I’m going to share with you some insights from my own experience of stress and mental ill health.

I’ll be sharing a technique that has helped transform me into a calmer, less reactive and in control individual, and something I now help nurses apply too.

My stressed out younger self.
When I was growing up, I was exposed to a very stressful environment.
After a parental divorce, my older brother started developing severe depression and showed serious self-harming behaviour for many years.
I spent a good deal of my teenage years worrying whether I would come home to suicide.
You can imagine what kind of worry and stress that caused.
My mum, a single parent with little coping skills, unfortunately did not deal well with the unfolding situation.
My mum was stressed out a lot.
Our house was like a warzone.
My teenage brain was being bombarded with chaos.
I grew up, like many, not just experiencing a lot of stress, but also perceiving stress as bad.
Afterall, it was the stress that was causing problems for me, right?!
Well, I certainly had my own issues with stress later on.
I struggled with my own depression and mental ill health.
I was reactive, quick to anger in relationships and irritable.
I was ill-equipped to deal with stress because like most people, I was never given the tools with which to work with it.
Something I learned much later in life, after many years of suffering, was that the way we perceive stress itself has a big influence on our wellbeing.

Attitudes toward stress.
Our attitudes toward stress get influenced by society, culture and the words and actions of those around us.
Society tends to send us the message that stress is bad. It’s something to ignore, suppress and avoid.
This is why we do a great deal of drowning out our feelings in Western culture.
We drink. We binge. We suppress.
Professional experiences also shape our attitude toward stress.
In the nursing profession, it’s very common to be given the message that stress is something to suppress and ignore.
The message beneath that then, is that there is no inherent positive value in stress.
Or else why would you desperately ignore it?
In general then, the normative cultural view is that stress is bad.
Stress causes ill health. It is something to be avoided.

Toxic stress and health.
Of course, there is a very strong relationship between chronic stress and a raft of physical and mental health problems.
This is why rates of stress related illness are much higher in nursing than other professions.
It is why nurses get sick and stay sick.
It is why they develop autoimmune disorders, depression, metabolic issues, and struggle to recover from chronic pain.
But is the relationship between stress and negative health outcomes that clear?
The answer is no.
And it is in part down to the way we perceive stress.

Stress mindsets
One of my own biggest revelations in my own stress journey was this: By seeing stress as bad, it tilted my reality in a negative way.
It made me run from my emotions.
It obscured the strengths I had developed from my adverse childhood experiences.
It disempowered me from harnessing the potential benefits of stress.
What I discovered is what researchers at the cutting edge of stress research are now talking about: stress mindsets.
A mindset is our thoughts, attitudes, beliefs and predictions about something.
Researchers have identified a stress mindset continuum. On one end lies the mindset that, “stress is debilitating”.
On the other end, “stress is enhancing”.
Research has shown that people who are able to shift their perception of stress and see it’s utility have better overall wellbeing, despite being exposed to similar levels of stress.
This means that seeing stressful experiences as something we can grow from can help buffer against the negative effects of that stress.
Holding a “stress is enhancing” mindset leads to changing the very nature of your relationship with what is going on in your body during times of stress.
It means having a friendlier, more adaptive response to stress and associated emotions, like anxiety.

Why is this important for nurses?
For many nurses, stress is an inevitable part of their job.
Even if you add resources, increase ratios, improve support, enhance pay, upskill etc, it is inevitable that some aspect of your role or family life will still involve stress.
Therefore, part of my mission is to help nurses develop a positive stress mindset.
A positive stress mindset helps find meaning in the misery.
It helps transform anxiety into excitement and energy.

It helps unearth strengths in the face of difficulty.
This isn’t about denying the negative effects stress can have.
Those must be acknowledged.
But this perspective empowers people and helps become less of a victim to stress, instead turning it around and gaining more control.
And the research is clear: If positive stress mindsets can be instilled in people early, this will mitigate the negative effects of stress encountered while at work.
Developing this mindset is relatively easy and a potent preventative mental health intervention.
My main focus is on nurses’ experience: I’m not interested in toughening people up so organisations can have another excuse not to invest in their people.
I believe in helping people who want to make a difference make that difference for longer, stronger and healthier.

How can I start developing a “stress is enhancing mindset”?
There are many ways you can start doing this.
It’s best done as an ongoing process of self-discovery. Using journaling questions like the ones below will help to subtly shift your mindset, and these can be supplemented with
further techniques.
- Spend some time journaling and ask yourself, “when has stress helped me achieve my goals?”
- If there were no stress at all in my job, how would it feel?
- If I were to start believing that stress could be a helper in some way, how would that change my world?

Allow your responses to these questions to simmer away in your mind.
Then see if you can start each day with some positive and supportive internal self-talk that reminds you of how stress could be benficial.

Further stress resources
If you’ve enjoyed this article and are looking to find more resources for managing stress and enhancing wellbeing, feel free to come and join my Facebook group: Nurse and Midwife Wellbeing Mission.
I also run 1:1 burnout prevention coaching for nurse leaders and organisational workshops.

Feel free visit my website or get in touch to find out more:
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