Sunday, June 4, 2023

I jumped out of a plane to learn the benefts of stress

I’m sitting in the back of the plane when the pilot announces we’ve reached maximum altitude. One of the crew gets up and – somewhat theatrically – slides open the side of the plane. In ones and twos, we shuffle towards the open door. When it comes to my turn, standing on the edge of a two-mile vertical drop, I’m more terrified than I’ve ever been.

Thankfully, as a first-time jumper, I’m strapped to an experienced parachutist who will guide us down. I don’t even have to take the next step. But my brain is screaming at me not to go through with it. Behind me, my instructor gently pulls my head back so I can hear his reassuring words over the roaring wind. I grit my teeth, take a deep breath, and we tumble forward into the fresh rushing air.

Answers to some of the most important questions in psychology can be gleaned from situations like this. What is stress? Why do we feel it? And how can we deal with it better?

Researchers have tracked levels of stress hormones in first-time and experienced parachute jumpers. At the moment of jumping, novices experience very high levels of stress, both subjectively (“Oh god, what am I doing?”) and objectively, based on levels of stress hormones. In contrast, experienced skydivers like the instructor also show a spike in stress hormones, but they don’t panic.

The researchers conclude that eExperienced parachutists are better able to cope because their prior experience means they can cognitively reappraise the stress they face, reframing stressful situations as challenges. The first time I jumped out of a plane this was beyond me. But in researching my latest book, Upshift, which is about performance and creativity under pressure, I learned that we all have this innate ability, and that we can unlock and improve it through conscious effort and practice.

Whenever we face a stressful situation, we put something at risk – resources, relationships, results or reputation. Something significant is at stake. In managing the situation, we ask ourselves questions: how significant is this risk to me? Is it benign or even potentially positive? Could it cause me harm or loss? Can I handle it?

Psychologists call this a “stress appraisal”. Our stress appraisals are based on the things we experience in a given situation, on our immediate self-assessment and on memories of how we coped with similar situations. It’s not that experienced parachutists don’t feel the butterflies, they just get them to fly in formation.

It’s not only parachutists that this applies to. In a related study by researchers at the University of Toronto in 2010, a group of emergency doctors and surgeons went through a series of resuscitation scenarios, some of them more critical emergencies than others. As well as gathering information on the participants’ state of mind relating to the tasks before and after exercises, researchers also monitored their cortisol and outward physical signs of stress throughout the exercises.

The results were remarkable. Participants who perceived the tasks as threats had higher levels of cortisol and were more stressed. In contrast, among those who perceived the tasks as challenges, this wasn’t the case – and their performance was markedly better.

That’s not all. Among parachutists, who experience acute and episodic stress, a different and fascinating effect has been observed. The spikes in stress have actually proved to have beneficial effects. Research in the military found that after their initial parachute jump, first timers had higher levels of natural “killer cells”, which are fundamental to our immune response to infection, compared with soldiers who weren’t selected for the jump. This immune boost is linked to the profound sense of elation and vitality many jumpers feel afterwards.

Two of the most surprising messages to emerge from stress science in recent years are that our experience and mindset have a profound effect on our stress responses – and that certain amounts of stress can actually be good for our health and performance.

Neuroscientist turned psychologist Ian Robertson understands this from both the inside and outside of our brains: the hardware of our neural structures and processes, and the software of our minds. As he explains it, all forms of mental challenge increase levels of adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone, in our brains. There is a sweet spot of optimal performance – called eustress – where higher levels of adrenaline not only improves cognitive functioning, but also helps the brain form new connections and new brain cells.

This explains why stress, in moderate levels, has emotional, cognitive and physical benefits. As Robertson puts it: “Some adversity appears to be essential in life, so that individuals can learn habits of managing stress.” Key to this is the process of cognitive reappraisal, which leads to the optimisation of stress hormone levels in the brain.

It makes sense that it’s all about balance. Too much – or too little – stress is bad for you yet common knowledge has not caught up with psychological science. For most of us, even the word stress is anathema, conjuring up feelings of being overwhelmed and on edge. Admitting to experiencing stress is associated with feelings of failure and inadequacy. We spend so much time worrying about the excessive demands that stress can place on us that we fail to capitalise on the benefits, which can seem ethereal and hard to grasp.

There is a great metaphor for this which borrows from the material technology of Teflon and Velcro. Most of us have minds like Velcro for the negative aspects of stress, which stick with us long after high-pressure events. In contrast, our minds are like Teflon for the positive aspects, which can slip away all too quickly. The implications are far-reaching and go beyond extreme sports like skydiving and high-pressure professions like emergency response.

Yet viewing stress as a uniformly bad thing can do more harm than good. A powerful illustration of this comes from analysis of the US National Health Interview Survey which is the principle source of information on American civilian health. Researchers asked thousands of adults about how much stress they experienced and how harmful they perceived stress to be to their health.

Over an eight-year period, this was tracked to understand what effect the perception of stress had on people’s health. The conclusions were astonishing. They found that high levels of stress increased the risk of premature mortality by 43% – but only among those who believed stress was harmful. People who perceived stress as not being harmful were no more likely to die. Researchers estimated that in the years over which the study was undertaken, 182,000 Americans’ deaths would have been attributable to the belief that stress was harmful to health. At over 20,000 deaths a year during the period of the study, it meant that negative perceptions of stress would have been the 13th leading cause of death, ahead of HIV/Aids, homicide and skin cancer. The researchers concluded that this carried “significant implications for theories of stress and health”, in particular that “stress appraisal is critical in determining outcomes”.

Armed with this knowledge, what can we do? For starters, we can learn more about that sweet spot and adapt our own stress mindsets. In one study of more than 300 staff in a large US financial firm undergoing a major downsizing as a result of a downturn, one group was shown videos about how stress is negative and causes problems and sickness. A second group was shown videos about the positive aspects of stress. The second group reported a more enabling approach to stress, improved psychological symptoms and better work performance. Just understanding the science of stress responses as I’ve described them here is a vital first step towards reframing stress and pressure.

We can also widen our windows of tolerance for stress. Much like practice fire drills, we can practise weekly “stress rehearsals”, in which individuals and groups think about different high-pressure situations and work out ways to navigate these scenarios. Over time, our real-life tolerance for stress will increase and we’ll find we are better able to negotiate high-pressure situations to reach and maintain that sweet spot of optimal performance. And this can help not just in formal team settings at work, but in our personal lives, too, with our families or in other relationships that are regularly subjected to pressure.

Last but not least, we can explore more ways of responding to stress creatively. Backed by solid science, there are various tools and methods we can harness in our attempts to navigate stress and pressure. For example, simple tools like the “alternative uses test” – in which you imagine a range of different and unusual uses for everyday objects, such as paperclips – can be adapted for stressful situations. Research in Australia has shown that firefighters and emergency rescue specialists who regularly use such tests and its variations see a tenfold increase in novel and creative approaches in search and rescue scenarios.

Perhaps the most important message is that when we face stress, we should work hard not to focus on the negatives and on the times we have failed. Instead, we need to focus on all the times we have faced pressure and have succeeded and on those the positive things that have emerged from failures. Rehearsing these alternative responseson a regular basis can actually change the structure of our brains and our habitual responses. It’s the stress management equivalent of London taxi drivers mastering the “Knowledge”. And for most of us, that’s probably preferable to jumping out of a plane!

Upshift: Turning Pressure into Performance and Crisis into Creativity by Ben Ramalingam is out now (William Collins, £22), available at for £19.36

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