Kate Matheny isn’t exactly someone who shies away from stress. Throughout her career, the Aurora, Colo., certified public accountant has pursued a progression of high-pressure management jobs. “I’m hard core,” says the 44-year-old wife and mother of two. “I wanted to be on top of the food chain [at work], and I wanted to be a great mom”âone who could attend lacrosse games, drive carpool and help with homework even after an hour-long commute and workdays that started, more often than not, with a 5 a.m. marathon-training run.
That is, until she hit the proverbial wall.
After months of losing sleep, dropping weight and “feeling pushed to the brink of losing my mind” by her juggling act, Ms. Matheny decided she had to address her stressâand turn it to her advantage. The new job she recently switched to still has its share of pressure, but with more support from her boss and more flexibility in her schedule, she says she feels great.
Contrary to popular belief, stress doesn’t have to be a soul-sucking, health-draining force. But few people know how to transform their stress into the positive kind that helps them reach their goals.
Recent research confirms that gaining control over job demands, doing work that lends meaning and purpose to life and enjoying support and encouragement from co-workers are all linked to beneficial stress. Simply changing attitudes and expectations about stressâthrough coaching, training or peer-support groupsâcan also foster the constructive kind of stress.
Quiz: What’s Your Good-Stress Score?
“Stress is paradoxical,” says Alia Crum, a research scholar in the management department at Columbia Business School who studies how people’s attitudes shape their response to stress. “On one hand, it can be the thing that hurts us most. On the other, it’s fundamental to psychological and physical growth. Our belief system, the lens through which we choose to view and approach stress, will shift the outcome.”
Employees at a troubled financial-services company were able to change their attitudes toward stress with the help of a video-training program showing athletes, leaders and professionals accomplishing great feats in the face of daunting challenges, according to research led by Dr. Crum that was published this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “We found a consistent shift in the mind-set among participants,” she says, toward seeing stress not as a drain, but as an aid to performance. And, the research showed, people who made the shift were more likely to experience a healthier physiological response during a difficult public-speaking exercise, exhibiting only moderate levels of stress hormones.
Ms. Matheny, the Colorado C.P.A., felt more than moderate stress levels in her previous job as a chief financial officer for an investment company. The smallest snag, such as bad weather delaying her kids’ school bus, could derail her tightly wound daily schedule. After dropping 20 pounds she didn’t want to lose, she says she found herself too weak to enjoy running a marathon. “I asked myself, ‘What are you doing?’”
Her new job, as C.F.O. for a smaller, less financially stable company, has let her blast her biggest causes of harmful stress. She gained control of her time by cutting her commute to 20 minutes and getting work done from home during off hours while still making time for her kids’ activitiesâwhich her new boss endorses. She is sleeping better, her weight is rising and she is strong enough to enjoy running again. “Work is still extremely stressful,” she says. “But it’s not personal stress.”
In a healthy stress response, the heart pumps faster and the brain goes on high alert as stress hormones flow into the bloodstream, temporarily shutting down the digestive and immune systems to devote more resources to the challenge at hand. Stress becomes harmful when these indicators stay chronically elevated, raising blood pressure, damaging the cardiovascular system, compromising immunity and causing aches, pains, digestive upsets and insomnia.
It is difficult to reverse an extreme stress response once it is under way, researchers say. More often, people who succeed in turning stress to their advantage make changes in advance, in their mind set or beliefs about stress, or in the way they work or organize their lives.
When severe stress caused Gary Schmidt to fail repeatedly in job interviews after graduating from college years ago, he tapped a peer-support group for help. He learned, through coaching from other members of Toastmasters International, a nonprofit communication and leadership-training group, to frame challenges as an opportunity to perform well, rather than a threat, he says.
The old anxieties struck anew after he was thrust into the job market in 2008. Beset with negative thoughts about what would happen to his finances if he blew his first job interview, he fidgeted, perspired heavily and studded his answers with “ummm” and “ahh,” he says. The interviewer rejected him immediately, Mr. Schmidt says.
Recalling his Toastmasters’ coaching, he approached a later opportunity with a different attitude: “I’m excited, my adrenaline is pumping,” he told himself, visualizing a home run. He “nailed the interview,” his new boss later told him, and landed the job as a county government-affairs director in Oregon City, Ore.
People differ in their capacity to dial down the stress response. Some are hard-wired by genetics and early-life experience to react more fearfully to challenges. Others who experience early adversity seem to stop responding to stress at all, posting little or no physiological reaction. No stress-management technique works for everyone; many people find their own best tactics through trial and error.
For stress to be most beneficial, it’s important to find meaning in your work, says Debra Nelson, a management professor at Oklahoma State University who has been studying stress for 30 years. “You have to have hopeâthe will and the way to accomplish what you are trying to do.” A 2011 research review in Stress and Health co-written by Dr. Nelson found that even workers doing intense, high-stakes jobs, such as air-traffic controllers and intensive-care nurses, thrive under heavy stress if they are optimistic about the future and find their work meaningful.
It also helps to eliminate known predictors of harmful strain, such as a lack of autonomy on the job, an unsupportive boss or co-workers, Dr. Nelson says. Some people, for example, assert themselves by negotiating to trim down impossible work loads or asking for more of the kind of work they enjoy, says Lois Barth, a New York City career coach.
Desiree Adaway was chronically stressed in a previous job as a senior manager for a nonprofit organization. She traveled half the time, often carrying three phones to respond to clients, co-workers and volunteers, and felt powerless to implement her ideas in a big organization. She often fell ill with bronchitis, her hair was falling out and her weight rose. In 2009, she says, her doctor looked at her, saying, “Your stress levels are off the roof.”
The exit route she choseâstarting her own business consulting for and coaching nonprofitsâactually compounded her stress by some measures, says the Asheville, N.C., single mother. She continues to work 10-hour days to support herself and put her two daughters, 19 and 22, through college. “I have to juggle payroll and cash flow, I have to blog and market myselfâ¦I go to networking events several nights a week,” she says. But her work, helping clients reach their goals, “just lights my fire,” she says. Now, stress is “the kind of tension that leads me to action, and it feels really good. I’m exhausted, but I’m exhilarated.”