The Challenge: We have so much going on, and it can be difficult for us to manage our stress…
The Science: The impact of stress depends on how you think about stress.
The Solution: Adopting the “stress-is-enhancing” mindset is a powerful way to deal with stress!
Nearly a third of Americans rate their average stress levels as extreme. No wonder a Google search of “Stress Management programs” pulls up 35,200,000 results. But how can you evaluate, let alone choose among all these programs? It seems impossible, and yet some form of action is required to manage your stress levels — after all, stress can kill you, right?
Mindsets: what you believe about stress makes it so
Researchers recently found that you can either have a “stress-is-debilitating” mindset or a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset — and what you believe matters. If you believe that stress is bad for you, then your reaction is to either avoid it (but think of all the missed opportunities!) or to manage it (but think of all the work!). It is not only a matter of lost productivity. All else being equal, people who reported high amounts of stress and a belief that stress negatively affects health had a higher risk of premature death (by 43%) than people who reported experiencing high stress but did not have the perception that stress affects health. To place the power of this belief in context, such a mortality rate would put the “stress-is-debilitating” mindset as the 15th leading cause of death in the US, killing more people than skin cancer or HIV/AIDS. Moreover, people who experienced stress but did not believe it would affect their health actually had a lower mortality rate than people who did not experience stress!
If, on the other hand, you believe that stress is good for you, then your reaction is to use the energizing effects of stress to achieve the goal that is causing you stress in the first place. Researchers found that if you have a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset, then you are more likely to seek challenges and feedback (think of all the opportunities for growth!) Moreover, you also get all the positive effects of the stress response (increased heartbeat) without the bad ones (constriction of blood vessels). Thus, if you believe that stress can be good for you, your physiology under stress is no different from the one of excitement.
Stress does not kill you. It is what you believe about stress that does.
The three key facts you need to know to change your mindset
So, how do you change your beliefs about stress? Consider the following facts:
- Stress can be good for your health and vitality. Stress elicits processes involved in physical recovery and immunity. After all, exercise is a way to stress your body to enhance its functioning, and you build muscles by stressing them. The immune system is enhanced in the same way (think of vaccinations).
- Stress can lead to learning and growth. Stress can increase your creativity and your cognitive speed. More importantly, many people become mentally tougher after stressful experiences, with the added benefit of an increased sense of meaningfulness and appreciation for life. Under stress, our bodies produce oxytocin, which has been called the “bonding hormone” because it fosters intimacy. That is why when we are exposed to stress we seek out others for support, which leads to stronger relationships, a key predictor of flourishing and life satisfaction.
- Stress can lead to enhanced performance when it counts. Stress at work can be a powerful motivator, and it leads to increased initiative-taking. Top performers use stress to focus: think of surgeons, of athletes in do-or-die competitions, and of fighter pilots.
Congratulations! If you read this far, you just went through an intervention to acquire a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset. Researchers were able to shift mindsets simply by having subjects watch videos that highlighted the facts mentioned in the three points above. What is the total length of the videos? Less than ten minutes.
The takeaway: Instead of trying to manage stress, think differently about it.
Next time you feel stress arise in response to a difficult situation, think of it as your body gearing up for the challenge, and remember these three insights at the foundation of a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset: stress can be good for your health and vitality; stress can lead to learning and growth; and stress can lead to enhanced performance.