A Bad Attitude Can Zap Stamina, Study Finds

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes for American Health and Psychology Today Service

One of the biggest problems of everyday life is keeping our energy level up. Sometimes our stamina just seems to sag, and what should be a routine task becomes a boring, almost unbearable job we just can’t seem to get done.

While physical problems can be involved, our psychological attitude more often decides whether stress is energy-inducing or energy-zapping. How we perceive events can be more important to our stamina level than the events themselves. A recent study by psychologist Martin Chen of the National Center for Health Services Research in Maryland concludes that the most powerful predictors of exhaustion are not physical but psychological factors.

People who reported feeling depressed or anxious were seven times more likely to report being fatigued than those in the study who had no such problems.

Other studies show that personality plays a big part in energy levels. People who view their lives with optimism, feel in control and see problems as challenges are more likely to tackle them with energy and enthusiasm. Understanding how moods fluctuate and how emotions affect energy levels can help you use your daily rhythms to achieve what you want. What’s more, you can take steps to change your outlook.


“Intelligent adults can usually modify moods to a more positive level,” reports psychologist Robert E. Thayer of Cal State Long Beach, who believes that mood is a crucial correlate of energy level. Our “subjective sensations of energy, vigor or peppiness,” he says, are but one aspect of the “broadly inclusive mood systems” that dominate consciousness.

But why should an idea or attitude become a physical feeling? Because our energy level isn’t an accident, Thayer argues. It’s the brain’s shorthand for a person’s total well-being at any given moment. The “core-mood states give vital signals about one’s readiness for action and need for rest,” he notes. “Feelings of energy and tiredness are the subjective signal systems of these crucial conditions of life.”

Health psychologist Richard Dienstbier of the University of Nebraska believes that research has paid disproportionate attention to the negative aspects of stress.

Actually, Dienstbier says, we respond to stress with a good deal of subtlety. He distinguishes two major types of response: “sympathetic-nervous-systemadrenal-medullary arousal,” which results in a raised adrenaline level, and “pituitaryadrenal-cortical arousal,” which results in the release of cortisol.

Useful energy, Dienstbier says, relates to adrenaline, which helps in generating glucose, “the fuel of the nervous system,” and to noradrenaline, which helps produce muscular energy. Cortisol, on the other hand, relates to tension.

But how does the brain determine which arousal complex to call into play? According to Dienstbier, through its appraisals of the situation. “Am I up against sure defeat or a test of my ingenuity and skill?” The issue, Dienstbier believes, comes down to whether a stressful situation represents a challenge you can meet or harm about to happen to you.

The good news is that some experiences and activities can toughen people, encouraging the energy-producing adrenaline response. And a toughened person has a more effective adrenaline response that peaks higher and lasts longer. Aerobic exercise and mental challenge build toughness, says Dienstbier, as does finding humor in everyday life.

Positive thinking can cause a positive spiral of responses. Challenges successfully overcome lead to greater toughness, which in turn leads to further successes.

Until recently “there has been almost no research on how people perceive their energy and how they experience it when it is high or low, let alone what they do to maintain it on good days or boost it when it flags,” says Clive Wood, research fellow at Oxford University and director of the Oxford Energy Project. This new multiyear research effort aims to “look at the positive side of energy.”