Did the world feel more stress in 2020 than any year ever?
According to BrainFacts.org, studies have backed up the idea that more people are worried, anxious, and, well — stressed. The pandemic has created risk of infection that is stressful for many, or has infected people to create health concerns for themselves or loved ones. Economic disruptions have had catastrophic effects for many businesses, workers and families. A multitude of riots and physical violence, threatening language and attitudes, and an ongoing set of destabilizing behaviors are occurring around the world. Add climate concerns to the issue, and I am ready to double down that more "stress" exists in the world than ever.
But let's consider the term "stress" for a second. If stress is felt with any change that alters our homeostasis, then it could be bad (aka "distress") or good (aka "eustress"). Everything I mentioned up to now, for me at least, falls under the category of distress. So where or when do we see "good stress?" I think I would call the destabilizing arrival of our new COVID puppy into our family good stress or eustress. A promotion might be an example of eustress, where a new role or set of responsibilities wrangles homeostasis but is an exciting next career step, hence positive stress. For more examples of eustress and distress, try this article.
Could relocation or heading off on a global assignment ever NOT cause stress? Hard to see how based on our definition. Some people will view moving as "distress," while others will experience it as "eustress" — and for many, there are likely instances of both stresses impacting the overall experience. The article below presents research that "is rooted in the idea that stress is multifaceted, and can result in good or bad outcomes depending on context and mindset."
One way to look at it is to ask yourself, "Do you see the change as a threat or a challenge?" The biopsychosocial (BPS) model of challenge and threat points out that people see threat when they feel there is a low set of resources for a high impact demand and they view it as a challenge when they evaluate resources as exceeding the demands. It makes sense, then, that providing relocating employees with great support or resources (benefits, technology and service) would help them to perceive things as challenging but not threatening — and then re-evaluate that stress as eustress, not distress!
As we support employees through the always stressful process of relocation or heading off on an assignment, we seek to help optimize the eustress and minimize the distress. One of the ideas shared in the article is that stress resilience includes the concept of "stress reappraisal." This allows the employee to change their response through a shift in mindset whereby something previously interpreted as a threat is now considered a challenge, and it allows them to better leverage resources to meet demands. The author adds:
"Shifting the perceptual lens can, therefore, produce 'real' changes in our biological responses to stress. So, it is possible to change people's stress responses relatively quickly and easily if the correct perceptual processes are targeted in situationally appropriate ways."
While some people are better with these paradigm shifts than others, everyone can get better at it. Those of us in the industry supporting relocating employees and their families may be more effective in supporting by better understanding where and when we can help to create or support those critical mindset shifts.
Looking for some additional info on stress and its impact on the mobility experience? Try one of these:
- Uncertainty, anxiety translating into more stress for relocating employees (and most everyone else)
- This is your brain on relocation
- Want to improve the assignee experience? Start with the brain
- What can neuroscience teach us about relocation? (Video)
- How can we better understand the stress of relocation? (Video)
- Exploring Expat Mental Health
A fundamental principle of the biopsychosocial (BPS) model of challenge and threat is the idea that the way we think about situational demands and coping resources interact to elicit challenge- and threat-type responses in stressful situations. We experience challenges when resources are evaluated as exceeding demands — in other words, when we decide we have more than enough resources at our disposal to deal with a situation. Alternatively, threat manifests when we feel the demands of a situation outpace our resources. Both challenge and threat activate the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary system (SAM), which release hormones that increase heart rate and dilate blood vessels. Threat responses, however, not only elicit SAM activation but also strongly activate the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, which produces a prolonged stress response due to the longer half-life of cortisol (the end product of HPA activation).