The power of perception

August 31th, 2023

On my website you’ll find an insightful video (currently available only in Dutch) in which I explain the power of perception, using stress as a prime illustrator.

Numerous scientific studies have indicated that stress especially exerts a detrimental health impact on individuals with a negative perception of stress. There are strong indications to suggest that individuals with a positive perception of stress experience significantly reduced adverse health effects. If you’re skeptical, I invite you to continue reading as I take you through the initial study I reference in my video.

Let’s delve into the details of a remarkable eight-year study. Researchers asked 30.000 participants: “How much stress did you experience in the past year?” The health implications of stress were assessed based on publicly available death records.

How much stress did you experience in the past year? A high amount? A moderate amount? Or a minimal amount?

The research outcomes were rather disheartening. The risk of mortality was 43% higher for participants who had experienced a lot of stress in the past year compared to participants who had experienced little or no stress. That’s distressing news.

However, this wasn’t the only result of the study. The researchers posed a second question to the participants: “What is your perception of stress? Do you consider stress as something that’s harmful for your health? Or do you think of stress as a physical response that isn’t harmful?”

And? What is your perception of stress?

This is where it gets surprising. The significantly increased risk of mortality only applied to participants who had a negative perception of stress. Participants who had experienced high amounts of stress in the past year and had a positive perception of stress had the lowest risk of dying in the entire study. So, even lower than the participants who had experienced minimal amounts of stress in the past year.

Okay, perception is powerful! Does this only apply to stress?

No, the power of perception is not limited to stress or medical contexts. The only reason I chose the example of stress to illustrate the power of perception is because everyone is familiar with stress. Making it a convenient example.

Everything we do is influenced by our perception. I could have just as easily shared a similar story for various other medical topics – such as depression, anxiety disorders, obesity, sleep disorders, chronic pain, etc. – as well as non-medical topics – like education, achievements at work, relationships, creativity, financial success, entrepreneurship, physical activity, problem solving capabilities, etc.

Yes, I understand this. But is this truly surprising?

When the interaction between our perception and our reality is explained by means of an example, we can readily grasp it. After all, in daily live we all constantly experience the connection between our perception and our reality. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we actively use this knowledge to our advantage. Nor that we possess the tools to put it into practice.

When was the last time you used your perception to your advantage?

Let me use the stress example one more time to illustrate that we often don’t (fully) harness the power of our perception yet. If it’s evident that a negative perception of stress has a negative impact on our health, then surely nowadays, we primarily learn about the positive aspects of stress? Right? And altering our perception of stress plays an crucial role in coping with stress? 

Recently, I stumbled upon a WHO post on LinkedIn addressing stress. In this post, the WHO asks if you experience stress at work or in your personal life? If the answer is ‘yes’, you can open a stress management guide via the link provided. This guide outlines various practical tips and techniques to cope with stress.

First and foremost, I want to emphasize that the WHO’s stress management guide is scientifically sound and that the described techniques and tips are very valuable and applicable.

What’s noteworthy is that all the techniques described revolve around perception and/or induce changes in perception. Therefore, perception plays a crucial role. 

Despite the powerful role perception already plays in the guide, there’s something I feel is missing. And that’s a technique that teaches us how to approach the body’s stress response as something positive rather than something negative; a technique to transform a negative perception of stress into a positive perception of stress.

Instead, the document clearly presents – both in text and with illustrations – the negative (health) effects that stress can have.

Here’s a question to ponder: Will this cause readers to experience their body’s stress response as something positive or negative?

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