If most of what you know, practice, and teach about stress is based on the fight-or-flight paradigm, hold on to your hat. Recent scientific findings show mindset — how we think about stress — has the power to foster negative effects… or significantly enhance well-being.
According to Stanford researcher and clinical psychologist Alia Crum, assuming stress is never positive and must be avoided or managed is fundamentally flawed.
In a recent HERO Forum (hero-health.org) keynote, Dr. Crum pointed out that the research about stress effects is not so clear-cut. In fact, the right level of acute stress improves brain processing, memory, and focused attention. It’s also linked with quicker recovery, enhanced immunity, and physiological toughness. And despite chronic stress having established drawbacks, it’s linked with mental resilience, deeper relationships, and a greater appreciation for life.
Indeed. Periods of major personal or professional growth tend to come with stress, explains Crum. She asked the audience: Would the same level of growth be possible without stress and struggle? We need a certain amount of challenge to thrive.
Dr. Crum’s research focuses on how subjective mindsets can alter objective reality through behavioral, psychological, and physiological mechanisms. One study illustrates the transformative power of how we think about stress: Subjects who watched 3-minute “stress is positive” videos 3 times/week experienced a significant reduction in negative health symptoms and an increase in work performance. Those watching “stress is negative” videos did not have these positive outcomes.1
This finding builds on a 2012 study, where researchers found that simply believing stress is harmful or reporting a high level of stress raised the risk of premature death. Having both conditions created an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy: These subjects had a 43% increased risk of premature death.2
Instead of hammering people with the message that stress is toxic and must be reduced, what if we reframe stress in a positive light… as something that can boost well-being and improve their lives?
It’s a nice idea, but Crum doesn’t recommend manipulation. Instead, she advocates that we help people understand the stress paradox… the positive and negative effects… along with the power of mindset. Help them recognize that power so they want to choose a mindset that views stress as natural and enhancing. Dr. Crum teaches a deliberate process:
Understanding that this approach is not about the following also is vital:
fMRI studies show that learning to respond intentionally instead of reacting to stress actually changes how the brain processes stressful situations; brain activity shifts from reactive to conscious and deliberate.3
Here’s how you can take a transformational approach to stress in your well-being program:
1. Crum A, Salovey P, Achor S. Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2013; Vol. 104, No. 4, 716-733
2. Keller, A, Litzelman, K, Wisk, LE, Maddox, T, Cheng, ER, Creswell, PD, Witt, WP. Does the Perception That Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association With Health and Mortality. Health Psychology: Official Journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 2012; 31(5), 677-684. doi.org/10.1037/a0026743
3. Lieberman, MD et al. Psychological Science, 2007; 18(5),421-428, cited in HERO Forum 2017 keynote by Alia Crum, PhD: Stress, Your Mindset, and Transformational Change