A mindset is a core belief about something or someone. It transcends preferences, learned facts, or intellectual opinions. It is usually based on a theory about how life works. For example: the world is getting less safe; everything happens for a reason; people cannot change; stress is toxic.
Mind-sets act like perceptual filters influencing how we interpret and give meaning to our experiences.
We can have a stress is debilitating (is toxic) mindset or a stress is enhancing mindset
When it comes to stress we can have either a stress is debilitating (is toxic) mindset or a stress is enhancing mindset. Each mindset has a different impact on our cognitive, emotional and behavioural responses when confronting perceived challenges and threats.
The research into the benefits of a stress is enhancing mindset
In 2009 Psychologists Alia Crum from Yale University and Shaun Achor from Harvard University conducted a study to test a new hypothesis. They wanted to determine how much the consequences of stress were determined by a person’s mind-set towards stress. They designed a study to determine if training a group of stressed employees about the positive benefits of stress could reduce the debilitating effects of stress and increase the beneficial effects.
The answer was YES.
The study showed that the group who received the ‘Stress is Enhancing’ training was able to significantly reduce stress related health symptoms such as headaches, back aches, insomnia and hypertension and significantly increase their productivity and work performance. The research suggests that, regardless of the type or severity of stress you are experiencing, if you can begin to believe in, and focus on, the enhancing possibilities of stress (as opposed to the debilitating ones as most people do), these enhancing outcomes will be more likely to occur.
So how do we change our stress mindset?
As part of their Stress is Enhancing training, Crum and Achor developed a simple three step process to help people shift from a 'Stress is Debilitating' mind-set to a 'Stress is Enhancing' mind-set.
The three steps are:
- Acknowledge your stress
- Welcome your stress
- Utilise your stress.
At first sight the three steps look counter intuitive because they fly in the face of the traditional message that stress is something to be minimised or avoided.
1. Acknowledge your stress
You need to know how you experience stress before you can use it to your advantage. However recognising how you experience stress may prove more difficult than you imagined. We’ve trained our brains to avoid stress because we have been told it’s bad for us or we’ve experienced so much stress for so long that we don’t even notice it anymore. We just accept that it’s normal to feel this way.
The first question is what are the stressors you’re facing right now? Choose a stressor you want to change your response to. Write down your typical response to that stressor in the following three categories:
Emotional responses – the feelings you experience when you are stressed like frustration, anger, sadness.
Behavioural responses – your actions or inactions like picking a fight with an innocent party, eating a bar of chocolate in one sitting, or distracting yourself from a deadline with unimportant tasks e.g. surfing the web or cleaning your office.
Physiological responses – the sensations or physical changes that occur in your body e.g. racing heart, cloudy head, nausea, fatigue.
Here’s the science, recognising and acknowledging your stress has a significant effect on your brain. When you are experiencing stress the process involves the limbic area of your brain, in particular the amygdala. The amygdala triggers the release of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol initiating a stress response (the infamous 'Fight or Flight' response).
A fight or flight response drives you into a reactive mode to try and escape the situation or to attack someone involved in the situation. As you write down and verbalise the stress symptoms you’re feeling, your brain shifts where it processes its perception of the situation to the PreFrontalCortex (PFC - your 'thinking' brain) which is the more evolved part of your brain. The PFC is the home of logic, reason, empathy and self-control. The PFC allows you to consciously craft an appropriate response. Rather than lashing out at whatever’s near you or running away which are typical amygdala initiated responses, the PFC allows you to choose how you respond to the stressor.
2. Welcome the stress that you are experiencing
Why would you welcome stress? There are two reasons:
- It increases the energy you have to cope or deal with the situation that you perceive as a threat or challenge. Working to avoid or fight stress drains your energy. Welcoming stress can increase your energy and allows you to focus on tackling the threat or challenge.
- Embedded within every stressor is something that is meaningful or important to you (a physical and/or emotional need). For example if I tell you that a round the world thousands of people will lose their jobs today it is unlikely to affect your stress level. But if I tell you, you are now redundant suddenly your stress level rises. Because now you have a purpose, value or goal embedded within that information. Behind every episode of stress you experience there’s something important to you. The key is to find it. If your stressor is a list of unread emails in your inbox you may perceive this as a threat to your need for achievement and control. At some point your brain should find the reason why it perceives the situation to be a threat or challenge. So ask yourself what is the positive value or motivation behind your stress?
3. Utilise Your Stress
The purpose of this third step 'utilising stress' is to help us to learn how to recognise and optimise the opportunities inherent in stressors.
- Does your typical stress response facilitate a positive purpose?
- How can you respond to this stressor in an enhancing rather than a debilitating way?
- What are the opportunities inherent in the stressors you experience?
Alia Crum makes the analogy that: "You think you’d be more conscious than your average oyster. But if a grain of sand gets inside an oyster shell, the oyster doesn’t run and hide and pretend the irritant isn’t there. Nor does the oyster hire a stress management team and spend thousands of dollars trying to get rid of the irritant. Instead the oyster wraps itself around the irritant. It is precisely because of the oyster’s utilisation of the grain of sand that pearls get formed."
This simple metaphor is the foundation of this third step - utilising stress. It’s not simply about overcoming or counteracting the stress in your life. This step is about taking the stress that you’re already experiencing and utilising it to help facilitate your purpose, to help you achieve your goals, and meet your physical and/or emotional needs.
The problem is we rarely do this. In fact when we have a ‘stress is debilitating’ mind-set we often do exactly the opposite, e.g. we pull away, we avoid.
When we have this ‘stress is debilitating’ mind-set, we seek to do anything we can to get rid of the stress but we forget that opposing the stress means we are opposing that which is important to us. For example, if we experience job related stress it’s probably because we care about our job, we want to make a contribution to our team and the company. The stress we are experiencing is compounding the problem by undermining our ability to do a good job. It’s better to utilise the energy present in the stress to getting the job done.
When we shift from a stress is debilitating mind-set to a stress is enhancing mind-set our motivation and responses change. To utilise stress:
- Recognise when your stress is a barrier to achieving your underlying goal(s). Then deliberately shift your focus and energy and behaviour to utilising the energy inherent in the stress, to achieve your goals.
- Begin recognising the inherent opportunities that arise not in spite of, but actually because of, the stress. People seldom forget the trials and tribulations of the stressors in their lives but they often neglect to see the value and the opportunity created by it. Stress researchers call this phenomena post-traumatic stress related growth.
Some experts suggest that true transformative change cannot occur without some form of stress.
On an individual level, research shows us that from even the most challenging stressors, such as trauma, death, and crisis, positive changes can result. People can develop mental toughness, heightened awareness, new perspectives, a sense of mastery, deeper relationships and an increased sense of meaning. Some experts suggest that true transformative change cannot occur without some form of stress. This is not say these enhancing outcomes always occur nor does it imply that stress doesn’t have destructive qualities.
By changing your mind-set about stress you can transform the effect stress has upon you.
If you’d like to find out more about how you can change your stress mindset, or if you’d like to schedule a stress management session to help reduce your stress level, contact me on 021 056 8389, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the Book Now button below.
Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response; Alia J. Crum and Peter Salovey
Yale University; Shawn Achor Good Think, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2012)