Why do some people get stressed and overwhelmed easily while others seem to sail through life with more confidence and positivity, even in the face of stress? While genetics may play a role, research is beginning to show that your overall attitude to stress can influence whether you are able to stay positive, think clearly, and be less physiologically reactive, even in the face of challenging stressors.
The Influence of Stress Mindsets
In a recent (2017) study, researchers from Stanford University manipulated participants’ mindsets towards stress by showing them short film clips depicting stress as either manageable and challenging or overwhelmingly negative and damaging. They then exposed the 113 participants to a stressful “mock job interview” in which they had to give speeches and answer questions. They assessed the effect of stress mindset on mood, flexible thinking, and the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEAS) after the task.
Results showed that those participants who were primed by the clips to perceive stress as beneficial performed better on measures of flexible thinking, had more positive emotions during the stressful interview task, and showed higher levels of the hormone (DHEAS, the “growth” hormone). DHEAS is a natural steroid produced by your body that has been shown to promote psychological resilience in previous research.
By contrast, those who were placed in the mindset condition depicting stress as overwhelming showed greater psychological stress reactions during the speaking task, were more likely to focus attention on the negative, and had higher levels of the hormone cortisol, which is a marker of physiological stress.
This research builds on previous studies showing that having a “stress is beneficial” mindset is associated with optimal levels of hormonal reactivity to stress and a more proactive, approach-oriented response to stress, rather than avoidance.
Why Does Your Attitude To Stress Make A Difference?
If you see stress only as a threat that will harm you, this can interfere with your ability to manage your mood and your body’s “fight or flight” response so that you can perform at your best in stressful situations. Focusing on the overwhelming and threatening aspects of the stressor may also narrow your thinking so you are less likely to come up with positive, creative ways to assess and deal with the situation. For example, if you see negative feedback from your boss as a sign that you’re a total failure and are going to lose your job, this will interfere with your ability to learn from the feedback so you can improve your performance to meet expectations.
Research on stress mindsets suggests that while we can’t control the types of stressors that we face, we can learn to see ourselves as resilient copers who have the internal resources to master and learn from many different types of stressful situations. Although this study manipulated stress mindset experimentally, other research shows that how you naturally approach and think about stress can affect your performance and stress levels.
What Can You Do?
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by stress, these strategies can help you adjust your mindset:
Instead of focusing only on the worst that can happen, think about what is the best that can happen and what is most likely to happen, based on previous experiences.
Find the Learning Opportunity
Think about what you can learn from this stressful situation. For example, you might learn mental toughness or resilience. Or you might have an opportunity to improve specific skills like managing your time better. Then think about specific action steps you need to take to improve these skills (like scheduling or breaking the task into smaller chunks).
Think About Your Past Successes
Deliberately focus on the challenges that you have successfully mastered in the past and what personal qualities helped you be successful. For example, you may have shown courage in moving to a new city or taking a new job. Or you may have a strong work ethic that has helped you be productive.
To manage the stress hormones, start a regular meditation or exercise practice or allow yourself to slow down and take breaks, rather than constantly rushing around. Our bodies were designed to alternate periods of effort with rest and recovery, rather than always being on the go.
Interrupt Cycles of Worry And Rumination
If you find yourself worrying about all the things that can go wrong, practice getting out of your head and back to the present moment. Focus on your senses, which creates a feeling of calm and grounding. For example, if you’re getting stressed because you’re stuck in traffic, deliberately focus on the color and shape of the trees around you.
Ditch the Perfectionism
Telling yourself that you’re only human and don’t need to do everything perfectly can reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. Decide if there are some aspects of the stressful task that you can let go of, or do quickly and efficiently.
Focus On the Long-Term Goal
Think about how managing this stressor can get you closer to your long-term goal. For example, if you are nervous about speaking in public, getting some practice can improve your expertise and make you more comfortable with speaking.
Let Stories Inspire You
Think about people who know or have read about who have gotten through difficult times or learned how to master stress. For example, the movie “Sully” tells the story of Captain Sullenberger who averted catastrophe by safely landing a plane in the Hudson River, after the plane was disabled by striking a flock of Canadian geese.
My new book The Stress-Proof Brain (New Harbinger, 2017) provides a variety of practical tools based on mindfulness and neuroscience to help you re-orient your thinking to become more resilient in the face of stress.
It’s not just the type of stressors you face that make a difference to your health and happiness. Rather, your general attitude and approach towards stress can affect not only your mood and thinking, but even your body’s hormonal response. Rather than focusing on what can go wrong, focus on the skills and attributes you have or can learn that will help you master the stressor and thrive!
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