February 25, 2019

Stress…. Is it always a Villain?

by Ali Emad Abdelaziz

stress.. it is really a villain?

Earthquakes, wars, forced migration, deadly diseases, they are all stressful life-threating events that human nature would naturally try to avoid. The Tragic stories from the survivors of the Holocaust and of the 2004 Tsunami, and those of the forced migrants crossing the Mediterranean escaping the current civil war in Syria, all make professional psychiatrists and basically anyone assume that those individuals are suffering from a kind of trauma, depression, anxiety, distressing thoughts and disruptions in normal functioning. Or in other extreme cases develop post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). But do you think that someone can actually experience some positive effects out of these life-threatening events? Can someone grow out of this tragedy? Is it possible to conquer an experience and use it for the better?

George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, published a seminal paper in 2004 where he provided and alternative hypothesis to the common belief that most individuals who experience life-threatening events suffer from trauma and stress and need medical intervention. He argued that the most of these studies are conducted on people who are receiving treatment or who experienced great trauma. He contended that the majority of those who experience adverse incidents would actually show resilience and an ability to maintain stable psychological levels of functioning. Earlier beliefs showed that resilience is rare. Almost a sign of heroism or that it might be a sign of pathology where people are faking good functioning, However, Bonanno argues that resilience is common and that actually unnecessary clinical interventions might actually interfere or undermine this natural resilience. This was supported by several studies on the survivors and bereaveds of the 9/11 attacks. Not only that, other psychologists showed that individuals can in fact show what is called Post-traumatic growth (PTG). This is a psychological change where individuals tend to experience better functioning out of the adverse experience (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). In a way that is akin to “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The individual finds a certain drive within experiencing the stressful event and bounces back stronger, with a refreshed view of life and sometimes better relationships with those around them.

The question then becomes: how do individuals reach these positive outcomes out of stressful experiences? Psychologists have tried to answer this question and they came up with different theories. Shelley Taylor’s (1983) cognitive adaptation theory suggests that traumatic events challenge’s ones self-esteem and self-mastery. And accordingly, the individual is motivated to restore this self-esteem and mastery through self-enhancing cognitions. In other words, the traumatized individual will try to gain control over these events and their life, and if not they will look for another aspect of their life to try to have control over. To support her theory, Taylor interviewed 78 women with breast cancer and some of those patients believed that they can prevent cancer from coming back by following the doctor’s treatment or by just having a positive attitude towards it. Another means is using self-enhancement where unrealistic bias towards one’s self is adopted and where illusions are created and believed. These illusions include making comparisons to others who are less fortunate in order to see one’s self in a more positive light.

Other explanations of PTG are personality-based. They suggest that people with more coping resources such as optimism, hardiness, coping skills and social network can get positive effects out of stress (Aldwin et al., 1996). In addition, some psychologists explain PTG as a (skill-)learning mechanism. A person who faced previous stressful events gets to learn coping skills and gain confidence in dealing with future stressful experiences. For example, a study among Holocaust survivors indicated that they had more life satisfaction and better stability than those who were not involved in the holocaust experience (Shanan and Shahar, 1983) .

So, when we extend this phenomenon and these theories to other domains of life, we can actually start to see some other interesting phenomena. Engaging in entrepreneurship or starting businesses is one of the decisions that involves such high risk and uncertainty, that it has been termed as “the plunge decision," (Dew et al., 2009). If you would question why would someone take this decision in normal circumstances, you could simply find answers such as necessity and unemployment or opportunities which are recognized and exploited by the entrepreneur.

But what if such a decision is taken in the midst of or after stressful events? The founder of Marks and Spencer, Michael Marks, was a refugee escaping the anti-Jewish violence in the Soviet Union. Whats app’s founder, Jan Koum and Google’s Sergey Brin, went through hard times with their families Fleeing the Soviet Union as well. How and why would they make these achievements with such hard beginnings?

Entrepreneurship in these cases can be seen as some from of PTG and a higher level of functioning. Someone who experienced stress due to forced migration, someone who lost their home, family, wealth and maybe other resources can see starting a business as a form of exercising control. As a way to achieve a sense of mastery to restore what they lost. If you were to have your own business, managing it and being responsible for other people, this can grant you the positive light you need to make up for losing control of the other parts of your life. Such as losing significant psychological and material resources after fleeing your home or during battling a deadly disease. Another explanation is that the individual engages in starting a business and being an entrepreneur as an active problem-focused way of coping with the adverse situation by acting to change the situation. It might also be an avoidance coping method that distracts the person from the stressful situation and hard reality they are living in. However, all of these explanations have not been scientifically studied yet.

Studies on the relationship between mental disorders and entrepreneurship have recently suggested that individuals with mental disorders can develop some coping and resilience skills that can help them become more successful entrepreneurs (Wiklund et al., 2018). Researchers found that entrepreneurs with dyslexia use the strategies they adopted earlier in their life to deal with dyslexia to better communicate and motivate their employees. This is in line with research showing that children with ADHD, who struggle during school, gain some creativity and risk tolerance abilities that makes them more resilient in college. While ADHD makes school and work experience harder, it has a certain power that can be harnessed for making better entrepreneurs (Wilmshurst et al., 2011). Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin group has both ADHD and dyslexia and he performed poorly at school that his headmaster told him he would either end up in prison or be a millionaire. We all know how that turned out, so far at least. The famous chef Jamie Oliver and the business man Alan Sugar, among other examples, are famous entrepreneurs with dyslexia.

I am not saying that someone would go on and seek extremely stressful and traumatic experiences as a push for growth. But the research outlined above shows us that we should not underestimate the potential of those who suffered or have been suffering from stressful situations. With the refugee crisis being one of the most critical global issues nowadays and their economic and social integration being looked at as a burden, we may want to look at this with a different lens. There is potential, power, creativity and resilience within those individuals that can actually be harnessed.

Stress need not be a villian. It can be a hero too!

Ali Emad Abdelaziz is a PhD researcher at the Warwick Business School. His research interests are entrepreneurship and innovation. You can find more about him here.

Ali penned down this for the blog Money on my mind. The blog is run by Merle van den Akker, another PhD student at WBS. She specialises in Behavioural Science.

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