A consequence of choice
What often determines the impact of stress is how a person chooses to interpret or respond to events. For example, the person who sees a stressful situation as a challenge to overcome may apply resources toward a creative solution that strengthens emotional, physical, and social wellbeing. Another person may perceive the same situation as an overwhelming threat and cope by fleeing to the local pub to drown brain cells in alcohol.
Emphasizing stress as a consequence or individual perception that can serve as a constructive force, Johns Hopkins University Psychologist Janet DiPietro told Newsweek that the constant message fed to the public is that stress is always harmful is a toxic message. The reality is that “most people do their best under… stress” (Carmichael, 2009, p. 46). This is because stress can absorb energy and motivation for better meeting immediate demands. Stressful situations can also help individuals and social systems to develop resilience for better facing future events. For example, tracking employees through a company crisis, Salvatore Maddi (2006) found that workers who had grown up in affluent, privileged circumstances tended to suffer more adverse impact from stress than workers who had tough childhoods. Maddi concluded that people who experience and deal with stress in childhood tend to grow into “very hardy people.”
Emerging research also seems to be countering conventional wisdom by showing that babies born to women under moderate stress were more developmentally advanced than babies of women with stress-free pregnancies (DiPetro, Bornstein, Hahn, & Achy-Brou, 2007; Carmichael, 2009). DiPietro and others theorize that a moderately stressful fetal environment may stimulate the baby’s brain and serve an essential function for helping the fetus develop resilience. Even extreme stress can have positive side effects, as is being demonstrated in research that shows cases of posttraumatic growth are the rule, while stress-induced psychiatric disorders are rare (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004).
Regardless of the benefits of stress, Newsweek General Editor Mary Carmichael (2009) found something interesting when asking psychologists about “good” stress: “many of them said [good stress] essentially didn’t exist.” People who think they benefit from stress are diseased, probably the product of abused childhoods or trauma in the womb.