Few would argue against the assertion that stress is pervasive and debilitating. But recent research by Alia J Crum, Peter Salovey and Shawn Achor, question whether this focus on the destructiveness of stress—this “stress about stress”—is a mindset that, paradoxically may be contributing to its negative impact. Their research, Rethinking Stress, suggests that improving our response to stress may be a matter of shifting our mindset.
From an evolutionary standpoint, the stress response improves physiological and mental functioning to meet imminent demands and enable survival. In a similar vein, according to Fay and Sonnentag (2002), stress at work leads to initiative-taking, by which employees take action to acquire the necessary skills needed to meet pressing demands. This suggests that we can effectively employ stress as a motivator for proactive problem solving by anticipating and planning for all possible situational outcomes. Sure, this anticipatory action process can go awry, leading to performance anxiety and panic, but when channeled correctly, the stress response can be beneficial, putting the brain and body in an optimal position to perform. Additionally, another by-product of stress, narrowing our perspective, recruits attentional resources, and can increase the speed with which the brain processes information, with the hormones released in the stress response boosting memory and performance on cognitive tasks.
Although stress is often linked to depression and relationship challenges. researchers have documented a phenomenon referred to as stress-related growth,where stressful experiences fundamentally change individuals for the better: The experience of stress therefore can enhance the development of mental toughness, heightened awareness, new perspectives, a sense of mastery, strengthened priorities, deeper relationships, greater appreciation for life, and an increased sense of meaningfulness.
Watch Dr Huberman, neurobiologist at Stanford, discussing Riding the Wave of Stress, Growth Mindsets, Dopamine Rewards
‘Stress is enhancing’ Mindset
A mindset is defined as a mental frame or lens that selectively organises and encodes information, orienting an individual toward a unique way of understanding an experience and guiding them toward corresponding actions and responses (adapted from Dweck, 2008). Mindsets are a necessary and familiar aspect of human cognition. Mindsets are also consequential. The mindsets people adopt have downstream effects on judgment,evaluations, health and behaviour. For instance, In the domain of intelligence, students who acquire a mindset that intelligence is a malleable trait as opposed to a fixed trait; i.e., “I can improve my intelligence” versus “I was born with a fixed IQ”, demonstrate improvements in both behaviour, attitude and performance.
Crum’s studies indicate that people can be primed to adopt a’ stress-is-enhancing’ mindset, which has positive consequences related to improved health and work performance. This does not mean that people should seek out more stress. But, it does mean is that people may not need to focus single-mindedly on reducing their stress, through mobilising cognitive and behavioural resources to combat stress.
A stress mindset is not itself a coping strategy. Nor is it an appraisal strategy. Whilst the appraisal of stress is an evaluation of a particular stressor, a stress mindset refers to the evaluation of the nature of stress itself as enhancing or debilitating. For example, you may view a particular stressor (e.g., speaking up before a decision is made) as highly stressful but have a stress-is-enhancing mindset (i.e.IMy stress is connected to caring in a meaningful way and I therefore believe that experiencing stress will ultimately result in enhancing outcomes). Conversely, you may also appraise the impending deadline as highly stressful but may have a stress-is-debilitating mindset (i.e., expect the stressor to debilitate health and vitality). If you hold a stress-is-debilitating mindset, your primary motivation will be, to avoid or manage the stress to prevent debilitating outcomes. On the other hand, when you hold a stress-is-enhancing mindset, your primary motivation will be to accept and utilise stress toward achieving those enhancing outcomes.
What can you do?
- Understand that stress responses are connected to something meaningful to you. Leverage your stress to speak-listen up to advance your value of caring.
- Optimise the opportunities inherent in stressful situations.
- Train for Courageous Conversations, where you will learn how to avoid your stress responses becoming the territory. This involves present-moment consciousness where your experience is accepted rather than evaluated as good or bad. Re visit the above video of Dr Huberman at 4minutes30seconds.
- Learn to Acknowledge your stress responses – ie butterflies, speaking fast, becoming impatient, turning to distractions.
- Welcome your stress as a reaction to your intentions, goals and purpose.
- Utilise your stress responses.
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