Stretch v Stress

There is a common belief that PGR students should expect to feel stressed or that being stressed will somehow help them to produce good work. Some students in our panels also expressed concern that if they weren’t feeling stressed that might mean they weren’t working hard enough or weren’t sufficiently committed to their research.

As we discussed in the section on emotional hi-jacking, being stressed reduces your cognitive function, making it more difficult to produce good quality work. Long term stress is also bad for your physical and psychological health and generally doesn’t help you – other than in short term, risk situations.

However, it is important not to confuse being stressed with being stretched. When we are stretched, we are challenged and pushed out of our comfort zone – but this is good for us. It helps us to grow, develop new skills and build confidence. It also helps provide meaning and purpose. Being able to respond to difficult situations and problems can help us develop strategies and skills that make us better able to respond to future potentially stressful challenges.

Being challenged and stretched is healthy – and your PGR degree should provide plenty of healthy stretch.

Unfortunately, people often confuse stress for stretch. This is because many of the physical markers are the same. Both can speed up your heart, give you butterflies in your stomach, change your breathing etc. But the neurological processes are completely different. Stretch will help you to perform well, it can speed up your thoughts, improve learning and aid creativity. Stretch can lead to you being in “flow” – a peak performance state that we know is good for wellbeing.

The key difference in determining whether you experience stretch or stress, can often be how in control you feel of the problem facing you. If you believe you can master this problem, have the support you need and are facing it by choice, you are more likely to experience stretch.

If on the other hand the problem has been imposed on you unwanted, you don’t think you can successfully tackle it and you feel like you’ve been abandoned with it, you are more likely to experience stress.

Part of this is determined by how you think about the problem or situation. If you think “this looks like a stressful situation. It’s inevitable that I’m going to be stressed,” then that thought process will guarantee that you will be stressed. If, on the other hand you think –“Ok this may be challenging but maybe it won’t be stressful, maybe I can make this a positive experience.” Then you at least open up the possibility of avoiding stress.

Of course, none of us can avoid stress completely or turn every situation into a positive one. But trying to turn as many of these potentially stressful situations into stretching situations, will at least reduce the number of times you become stressed and will benefit your wellbeing and your work.

When facing a problem, it can be worth spending some time to see if you can take control of it, make it something you want to master, use the support around you and break the problem into chunks you believe you can successfully complete. This will help you to stay in stretch, feel better and produce better work.