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Opinion: Stress relief through the power of perception

Childcare workers, just like many in other industries these days, are required to do more with less and perform duties and possess skills that were not traditionally part of their roles. Not only are their roles changing, but also they still have the inherent responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of the little humans entrusted in their care, which, let’s face it, is stressful in itself. So, is it a surprise that childcare workers are feeling more stressed and experiencing burnout more than ever? With little control over the pressures they will experience each day, what separates those who cope with those who don’t is the ability to bounce back from challenges. Yet what many don’t realise is this is where they do have some control.

Did you know that stress itself is not what causes burnout and the negative impacts we traditionally attribute to its repercussions on our bodies? It is our perception of stress that has the potential to do damage. Before you disregard this as another pop psychology fad, you should know that significant studies have been carried out and traditional psychologists are now changing how they work with their clients on reducing the negative impacts of stress.

A study from the University of Wisconsin sought to examine the relationship between the amount of stress, the perception that stress affects health, and health and mortality outcomes in a nationally representative sample of 30,000 US adults. Participants in this study were asked two questions:

  1. What was the amount of stress you experienced in the last year?
  2. Do you believe stress is harmful for your health?

Over the years, researchers used public death records to find out which of the participants died and the results are sure to get you reconsidering your perception of stress! Those who reported they had experienced a lot of stress and perceived that stress was bad for their health had a 43 per cent increase in risk of premature death. However, those who reported they had experienced a lot of stress yet perceived that stress was not bad for their health were no more likely to die, and, in fact, had the lowest risk of dying out of anyone in the study – including those who had reported experiencing little stress.

So, there you have it. If you perceive that stress is bad for you, it will be. The question is, how do you go about changing your perception of stress and begin to feel the positive benefits this will have on your psychological and physical health? This is the question I will be addressing in my keynote talk at the upcoming In Pursuit of Playfulness, Curiosity and Innovation conference, run by Gowrie NSW, UTS Child Care and Campus Life (Macquarie University). The trick is to shift your mindset, and instead of viewing stress as a threat, view it as your body’s way of making sure you rise to the challenge in front of you. It takes practice, but the positive effects are surely worth it!

Rachel Clements is director of psychological services at the Centre for Corporate Health.

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