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Elizabeth Scott, M.S.

Threat Vs. Challenge

By September 16, 2013

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It's long been known that the way you look at a potentially stressful situation can alter whether or not it ends up being stressful. In other words, a significant part of your stress is created by how you look at things! This is a common thread that I've written about in optimism, maintaining a sense of humor, and even using the Law of Attraction.

New research out of Dartmouth College reinforces this principle in relation to job stress. In two different experiments, researchers studied how people respond when they go against the grain at work, and are thus more noticed and scrutinized. For many, being the focus of attention at work can be a stressful experience, but this isn't universally true. What factors affect whether being a standout is stressful or affirming?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the level of resources people had to do a good job had a major impact on whether or not they were stressed when finding themselves the center of attention at work. Researchers deduced that the key ingredient here is whether subjects felt threatened, or challenged.

This is a key distinction, because it's perceived threat that triggers the stress response--not necessarily actual danger. Once the fight-or-flight response is triggered, a cascade of changes occur in the body, and if this happens often enough to constitute chronic stress, your health can be affected in ways both minor and major.

In contrast, a challenge can create eustress--the type of stress that makes you feel vital and alive. Challenges at work can stir creative juices and give you a reason to look forward to going to work in the morning.

While you can't always control what type of experiences you encounter, you can make a conscious decision to try to view situations as challenges instead of threats as much as possible. Viewing something as a challenge automatically gets you looking for solutions, rather than getting buried in feelings of stress.

How do you get into the "challenge, not threat" point of view? Here are a few resources to get you started:

How To Be More Emotionally Resilient

Tips On Maintaining a Sense of Humor

Develop Positive Self Talk

Oh, yeah; and it never hurts to be prepared!

White JB. Fail or flourish? Cognitive appraisal moderates the effect of solo status on performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. September, 2008.

Like this post? Want to use it to start a discussion with your friends? Pass it on!

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August 7, 2008 at 5:51 pm
(1) Jeff Justice says:

I agree with what you have to say about using humor to deal with stress. I teach that your most important line of defense against the daily onslaught of stress is the ability to laugh at yourself.

Be Happy,


August 7, 2008 at 8:29 pm
(2) stress says:

Hear, hear, Jeff! I bet you help a lot of people!

September 5, 2010 at 1:07 am
(3) Praveen says:

Emotional resilience, I also think, is very important factor in determining your stress levels. It is part nature, part nurture – that initial reaction. Some people instantly take it as a threat, while others have their fighting juices up and running.

May 23, 2013 at 2:19 pm
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