How Re-Thinking Stress Could Rewire Your Response To It

Could the way that you think about stress help you to manage it?

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‘For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so … since nothing is really good or bad in itself—it’s all what a person thinks about it.’

Hamlet: Act 2, Scene 2, Page 11

Stress has a bad rap and with good reason. Conventional wisdom dictates that prolonged stress will kill you (it’s true). Stress will make you ill (it will). Stress is bad for you (it is). Stress will …. (fill in the blanks). It’s all true and we know it. But is it possible that rethinking our perception of stress might increase our ability to manage it? New research suggests that the way we perceive stress may be critical in terms of how we respond to it. So what is re-thinking stress and how can we do it?

The Research

Alia Crum, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University explored the role of mindsets and how they impact our stress response. Using the Stress Mindset Measure (SMM) Crum assessed the extent that an individual believes stressful events are either enhancing or debilitating. The research team discovered something astounding; the way that we perceive stress affects our ability to manage it, determining our stress response.

Why Does Stress Mindset Matter?

Crum’s research suggests that our perception of stress has a huge impact upon our ability to manage it. The suggestion that there may be a stress mindset merits a rethink in terms of our current stress management strategies. Rather than reducing our levels of stress should we be thinking about welcoming and accepting stress instead? Stanford Professor, Carol Dweck’s work on mindset suggests that mindset is malleable, can be trained, altered and developed. Kelly McGonigal, Stanford Business School Lecturer, describes how going through stressful events can make us more adept at handling them in the future. Crum’s research found that viewing stress as part of life, as just another skill to be mastered resulted in better health, emotional well-being and productivity at work – even during highly stressful periods. Viewing stressful events this way enabled subjects to thrive rather than merely survive. The opposite was true of those who viewed stress as insurmountable. Instead of engaging in positive stress management strategies they often engaged in maladaptive, counterproductive strategies such as drinking or overeating which compounded the issues.

Does this mean the end of stress?

Whilst Crum’s research is promising in terms of building resilience and adapting mindset to develop a more effective stress response, it isn’t a panacea. It’s one useful piece of research which has been able to shine a light on mindset and it’s role in our stress management arsenal. Individual stress mindset is not a reason to abandon the aspiration of a workplace culture designed to incubate resilience, compassion or kindness, quite the opposite in fact.

Context is crucial. There may be some people, for example, those who have experienced trauma, who require a more in depth approach than mere mindset adaptation. Or others, who day in day out face stressful events, relationships or professions where the solution lies elsewhere, including removing themselves from the situation.

How to rewire your stress response

Pondering rethinking stress or telling yourself that stress is good is a start, but if that’s all you do it probably won’t have much of an impact. Using smarts from Dweck’s mindset research we can do more than just talk stress up. Rewiring your stress mindset requires decisive action. Here are 5 key steps to change your stress response.

1. Recognise that stress is a universal phenomenon. It happens to everyone, stress is not unique to you.

2. Acknowledge that you have the ability to manage stress. The skills you don’t have, you can learn.

3. Monitor your self talk around stress. If you identify a stress mindset that suggests stress in all consuming and insurmountable, talk back to it. Have some positive stress mindset phrases at the ready “I’ve dealt with it before, I can deal with it again.” or “Stress is something I can develop and improve my response to.”

4. See if it’s possible to identify physical responses to stress in the body. Where do you feel it? In your neck? your stomach? Are there physical sensations that act as an early warning signal enabling you to fine tune your response to stress? Finding it tricky to identify physical sensations in the body? Learn to practice mindfulness techniques such as the body scan to help you develop the skill.

5. Examine each stressful event carefully, what can you learn from it? What can you develop and take into the next stressful event to improve your response? Each stressful event leaves a psychological footprint. Known as stress inoculation by psychologists, this is your brain’s way of bullet proofing you for your next stressful event. Learn to harness it.

Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response, Alia J. Crum and Peter Salvoes, Yale University (2015)

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Can personality be changed? The role of beliefs in personality and change. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 391–394. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00612.x

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