Stress as motivation for learning

Published by Richenda Sabine on

Stress as a motivation for learning

Table of contents

What actually is stress anyway?

According to Kathleen Gunthert, a professor of psychology at American University, stress occurs when someone is experiencing an imbalance between a challenge and the resources available to them. Researchers have identified two different types of stress: Distress, which relates to negative stress (such as a breakup); and Eustress, which relates to positive stress (when starting a new job).

However, chronic stress (defined as ‘the physiological or psychological response to a prolonged internal or external stressful event’), can be debilitating and overwhelming and can affect both our physical and psychological well-being.

So how can stress become motivation for learning?

Stress can enhance motivation for learning

When considering stress as motivation for learning, it’s useful to look at some of the unexpected benefits to experiencing a little bit of stress.

While heightened stress can feel overwhelming and decrease motivation, a little bit can help to kick-start your work, and in fact provide some motivation for learning.

“Medium levels of stress can enhance our motivation,” says Professor Gunthert. “For example, the stress of a deadline can help people focus and pay more attention because time is running out. We’ve all had the experience having to get things done, but not being able to find the motivation to do it until we are stressed because it is due the next day. Suddenly, the motivation is there. That fight or flight response can kick us into gear sometimes.” 

young woman meditating at desk in front of computer

Stress can build resilience and encourage growth

Even though stress can feel overwhelming, it also forces people to problem-solve, ultimately building confidence and skills that are important for future experiences, says Peter Vitaliano, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He believes that, with increased resilience and confidence, people tend to feel less threatened and more in control of their situations.

Using stress to face your fears or challenges can also help you work through experiences instead of avoiding them. After facing a fear, you should feel better equipped to handle it in the future since you’ve already experienced it.

Stress can promote bonding

One of the most surprising benefits of stress is that it can help build interpersonal relationships, which are key to overall health. “Social connection is one of the most protective factors against physical and mental health problems,” Professor Gunthert says.

When people feel loved and understood by another person, they feel less alone and less isolated.

Support groups, for example, are a great place for people to talk about their stresses with others, which builds compassion and, in turn, positive hormones, Professor Vitaliano says. By opening up to one another, people feel better because they can relate to each other’s struggles and validate their feelings, creating positivity out of a negative experience.

Talking to friends and family can build and strengthen relationships too. A lot of our friendships or family relationships wouldn’t be the same if we hadn’t supported each other through some of the tougher times.

close up of team gathered around in support group

Stress is part of a meaningful life

A life without stress isn’t necessarily better. Take, for example, a university student. The application process is competitive, the coursework can be challenging and after graduation, transitioning from an academic setting to a business is a learning process. However, in the end, they’ve accomplished something to be proud of. “The things that we are most proud of and bring the most meaning in our lives are hard,” says Professor Gunthert. “If we wipe out the stress, we’d also likely wipe away a lot of the meaning in our lives.”

What’s the difference between stress and anxiety?

There is an overlap between stress and anxiety. Stress is related to the same ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response as anxiety, and the physical sensations of anxiety and stress may feel very similar.

However, the causes of stress and anxiety are usually different.

Stress focuses  mainly on external pressures  that we find hard to cope with. When we are stressed, we usually know what we’re stressed about, and the symptoms of stress typically disappear after the stressful situation is over.

Anxiety, on the other hand, isn’t always as easy to identify. Anxiety focuses on worries or fears about things that could threaten us, as well as about the anxiety itself.

Stress and anxiety are both part of being human, but both can be problematic if they last for a long time or have an impact on our wellbeing or daily life.

The New York University neuroscientist and psychologist Dr Wendy Suzuki believes we can use ‘worrisome’ energy to our advantage.

A ping on our phones can send us into a tailspin, e.g. a request for a meeting can set our guts twisting for hours. But according to Dr Suzuki, these feelings do not have to be unhelpful or damaging to our wellbeing. In fact, if we can reframe them, they could hold the secret to workplace success.

Retrain your brain

“The brain is one of the most adaptable organs in the body. It doesn’t become fixed after a certain age   ̶̶   modern research has revealed that the brain never stops changing (neuroplasticity) in response to learning”, says Dr Suzuki. “Therefore, you can consciously intervene and change the way you respond to stress: You can think ‘it’s not something I’m drowning in, it’s just a challenge that I’m going to step up to’.”

This involves training, or what Dr Suzuki refers to as building ‘stress tolerance’. Just like inoculation, exposing yourself to a little anxiety, and understanding it better, makes you stronger.

One of the first steps is identifying your top three work worries and interrogating why these are triggers for you. By asking yourself these questions, you can learn more about what you want and can then judge how justified that anxiety may be, how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ it is. If ‘good’, you can then lean into it, using your apprehension as fuel rather than as a blocker.

It can eventually become a tool for self-optimisation. Many of the techniques Dr Suzuki recommends for dealing with ‘bad’ anxiety are wellness-oriented, e.g. exercise, meditation, or even recalling a happy memory every time that email notification sets you worrying. These mini moments of resistance – or in her words, a self-administered “antidote” – are meant to remind you that you are still in control. She calls it “the art of worrying well”.

“The goal is not anxiety elimination,” she declares. “If it was, we would lose this chance to learn. If you make anxiety part of a learning process, instead of trying to block it out entirely, it could make your life less stressful and more joyful. That’s what makes this a superpower.”

Here at BestAtDigital, we’ve been fortunate enough to work with clients who are putting the topic of employee wellbeing at the forefront of their strategy. To find out more about how we can help your organisation to enhance employee wellbeing and motivation for learning, please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

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