By Catherine Sanderson, PhD
Considerable scientific research tells us that different people react to the same thing in different ways. When I was in my early 20s, my boyfriend Bart and I got a flat tire while driving on a freeway near downtown Atlanta. As this was long before everyone had cell phones, I immediately panicked. I worried that we would be stranded for hours. I worried that I’d have to either walk alone to get help or stay alone with the car. I worried that our whole day would be ruined.
As Bart pulled to the side of the road, I shared my many concerns. He looked questioningly at me and said, “I’m just going to change the tire — it will take a couple of minutes.”
What for me was a major problem, Bart saw as a minor inconvenience. He changed the tire, and we were on our way in about 15 minutes. (This was also when I decided I should marry this guy; he is now my husband.)
Many people think about stress as a negative and something to be avoided because it leads to poor outcomes: low test scores in children, career burnout in executives, and “choking” in athletes. This mindset increases anxiety, disrupts performance, and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
However, people who accept stress as a normal part of daily life and with a positive mindset experience stress as exhilarating and invigorating, and they reap the benefits of this extra energy to respond effectively to various challenges. As you might predict, people with this type of mindset often end up with better overall outcomes. These are the folks who do their best work under pressure and when stakes are high.
Evaluate your stress mindset
I’m sure you are now curious about your own stress mindset. Fortunately, researchers have developed a simple way to test this. Read the following eight statements and rate them from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).
1. The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided.
2. Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality.
3. Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth.
4. Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity.
5. Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth.
6. Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity.
7. The effects of stress are positive and should be utilized.
8. Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality.
Now, as you can probably tell, higher scores on the first four statements indicate a more negative stress mindset. On the other hand, higher numbers on the second set of four items indicate a more positive mindset.
But, here’s the most important point: Regardless of your natural tendency, you can shift your mindset. Understanding the role of mindset in influencing how you think about stress is the first step in learning how to reframe it in a new, more positive way.
Change your mindset, change your life
Stress is unavoidable. We all experience irritating daily hassles, like having to wait in a long line, dealing with frustrating co-workers, and feeling overwhelmed by an endless to-do list. We can’t eliminate all stress from our lives, but we do have a lot of control over how we think about or frame the challenges we face. Learning to handle this stress in better ways helps reduce its negative effects on the body.
Merely changing how you think about stress can have a big impact. People who learn strategies for reframing stress in a more adaptive way — as energizing and inspiring, not just exhausting and debilitating — show better psychological and physical well-being. For example, college students who learn about the benefits of stress, including how stress increases arousal and thereby leads to improved academic performance, show lower levels of math anxiety and better test scores. This type of reframing reduces cardiovascular stress and its overall wear and tear on the body.
Here’s a simple example about the practical benefits of changing our stress mindset. Researchers in one study assigned employees at a large financial institution to watch one of two videos. The first group watched a stress-is-debilitating video, which described various harmful aspects of stress, including its role in poor performance at work and negative health outcomes. The second group watched a stress-is-enhancing video, which described the benefits of stress for improving creativity, productivity, and the immune system.
As the researchers predicted, people who watched the stress-is-enhancing video showed substantial benefits. They reported better work performance, as well as lower levels of anxiety and depression.
We can’t control what life throws at us, but we can all practice reframing difficult events as challenges instead of threats. This shift in mindset has substantial benefits for our psychological and physical health.
Catherine Sanderson, PhD, is a speaker, the author of “The Positive Shift” and a professor at Amherst College. With degrees from Stanford University and Princeton University, Catherine’s teaching focus is on how we can tweak our mindset to improve the quality of our lives.