Harnessing a healthy stress mindset
While there have been plenty of stories over the years emphasizing the benefits of reducing and avoiding emotional and mental stress, there is also a growing body of research that explores the power of a mindset where stress is not necessarily harmful, where its effect largely depends on how you "stress about stress."
Learning about your stress mindset can have a dramatic impact on your body's responses, your choices between adaptive or harmful coping strategies, and your general health and performance.
What is a stress mindset?
A mindset is a type of metacognition, or a way that humans think about thinking. Mindsets provide mental shortcuts to help you organize and understand yourself and your environment, from what meaning you give to different incidents, to how you react to different circumstances or how you prioritize your goals.
A stress mindset refers to a person's beliefs about the consequences that stress has on their well-being. A "stress is debilitating" mindset views stress as a threat, meaning it should be avoided or suppressed. In contrast, a "stress is enhancing" mindset considers stress as a challenge, which offers opportunity for learning and growth.
Why to consider your 'stress about stress'
Public health studies reveal that mindset can influence the psychological and physiological effects of stress. For instance, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison conducted a study that found that adults with a "stress is debilitating" mindset had a 43% higher risk of dying than those who had a "stress is enhancing" mindset.
Your stress mindset also impacts how you interpret your own physical stress response. For example: You're about to give a presentation at a work-related convention, and your peers and supervisors are in the audience. As your time to speak gets closer, you notice that you're perspiring, your heart is beating faster and your breathing is shallower. You start to fidget and twitch.
If you subscribe to the "stress is debilitating" view, you might try to suppress your body’s response. In most cases, that will make the experience much worse, adding to your anxiety and the duration of your discomfort. You might also conclude that having any kind of physical reaction is a sign of weakness, and it means that you're not handing the situation well.
On the other hand, with a "stress is enhancing" mindset, you could recognize your physical response as a biological profile for courage, with your body mobilizing energy to help you meet a challenge instead of fending off a threat.
Explore your mindset
In addition to recognizing the implications of your stress mindset for your long-term health, consider how it affects your participation in your own life.
Talking with a supervisor about your work needs, trying out for a play, traveling to a far-flung locale to climb a mountain – these are all goals that may stretch you past your comfort zone.
A positive stress mindset evaluates these pursuits, and signals an "embrace and lean in" feeling. A negative, "stress is debilitating" mindset, on the other hand, can undermine your efforts to go after them. At a certain point, avoiding stress itself adds to distress, because you end up overriding your body’s natural impulse to meet a challenge.
Here are some questions to help you uncover your own mindset:
- Do you think that stress is, as a rule, good or bad?
- Do you avoid stress, or do you take advantage of it?
- Do you think that stress affects your quality of life? Your health? Your vitality and energy?
- Do you find that stress affects your ability to be productive, at work and beyond?
Pivoting to resilience
If you find that your stress mindset applies the "debilitating" lens, practice cultivating a more positive and "enhancing" mindset about stress and its effects.
An abundance of trials on changing mindsets have shown that using guided imagery that reflects on the healthy uses of stress can temporarily shift a negative view.
And just as going to the gym builds muscle and stamina, you can also build your own mental resilience before encountering a stress response. A daily mindfulness or meditation routine can train your mind to become a curious and nonjudgmental observer of your inner experience. As you practice, your confidence will increase, and you'll trust yourself and your body's capacity to endure.
Stress is an inevitable part of life, and it can foster the strength you need to not only survive but also grow. So take the time to de-stress about stress.
James R. Naughton is an employee assistance counselor at Life & Work Connections. He is a licensed professional counselor with more than 21 years of experience. Last year, he led "Pause and Pivot," a series of 15-minute sessions to help University employees navigate stress. Video of those sessions, and many others, are available on the Life & Work Connections YouTube channel.
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A version of this article first appeared on the Life & Work Connections website.