Last minute deadlines.
Big events to plan.
Buying a new car.
Conflict with co-workers.
Are you feeling a bit stressed reading through this list? Yeah, me too!
Stop for a moment and consider the nature of stress. When you think about stress, what are your thoughts? Is stress something that is always bad? Something to be avoided? Or can there be benefits or opportunities for growth?
Stress comes with a host of negative consequences, no doubt about it: headache, heart disease, reduced immune system, digestive problems, anxiety, depression, relationship strain, and the list goes on. But have there also been times in which our stress response can lead us to perform better, to overcome challenges, to connect with other people, and to grow.
In research, we distinguish three related concepts: stressor, stress, and strain. Stressors are demands from the environment (i.e. the list above), stress is our momentary response to those demands when we think they tax us or exceed our abilities, and strain is the effect it takes on us over time. Stressors generally lead to stress which generally leads to strain. BUT it’s not inevitable. And that’s the key here.
Stress researchers have recently discovered that how we think about the nature of stress affects how we respond to it and the long-term effect it has on us (strain). We can think about stress as something always bad that leads to bad outcomes (stress-is-debilitating mindset) or it can bring about positives as well (stress-is-enhancing mindset). Research shows that more positive views of stress (stress-is-enhancing mindset) relate to more positive physiological and behavioral outcomes such as openness to feedback, cognitive flexibility, and life satisfaction (Crum et al., 2013; Crum, et al., 2017). Stress mindset has significant effects on both physiological outcomes such as cortisol reactivity and behavioral outcomes such as the desire for feedback under stress (Crum, Salovey, & Achor. 2011; Crum et al. 2013). People holding a stress-is-enhancing mindset experienced greater increases in levels of anabolic hormones, which are associated with growth, and experience increases in positive affect and greater cognitive flexibility compared to those with a stress-is-debilitating mindset (Crum, et al., 2017).
Here are two excellent videos by the leading health psychologists and researchers summarizing this research:
In my own research, we found that holding a stress-is-enhancing mindset was beneficial for job satisfaction and turnover intentions. Specifically, the negative relationship between work-family conflict and job satisfaction was significantly less pronounced for people who believed stress could have benefits. And they were also better able to see the benefits of participation in both roles, work-family enrichment. So it helped reduce the negative effects of the bad things and augmented the good! Win-win!
The good news is that this isn’t something that you’re born with. You can change your mindset towards stress.
This past year has objectively been a stressful one for me: I started a new job, managed the logistics of an international move, managed my three kids’ emotional needs through the transition, and supported my husband in his job search. And let’s not forget the smaller ways too – weaning my kid of a pacifier, trying to make new friends in a new city, and deal with the daily hassles of life. I admit there have been so many moments where I made stress my enemy and let it all get the better of me. These have been dark and ugly moments. But I’m trying to “get better at stress” by putting this research into practice. My health, my family, my students, and my colleagues, and my friends all depend on it. These are my top 3 take-away points from this research:
1. Realizing that some stress is inevitable, so not to be so shocked by it. I’m still working to reduce it in as much as possible (especially chronic stress and shadow work). When I’m feeling stressed in the moment, I try to acknowledge it to myself. I’m really feeling stressed about something right now and that shows that I care about it. It’s important to me. And that's a good thing!
2. Reframing the physiological sensations of stress as ways my body is preparing to work through what it’s facing. For me, it’s in the heart, stomach, and head. When my heart beats fast and I feel that weird feeling pit in my stomach, I try to remember my body needs energy and it’s giving it to me. A regular commitment to exercise and giving birth three times has also helped this. I’m less afraid of a little physical discomfort and I realize it will dissipate. I trust my body a bit more.
3. Trying to “tend and befriend.” When I’m feeling stressed, I try to think of how I can connect with other people. An easy go-to here is to try to physically connect with my husband or kids. A back rub or snuggle takes the focus of me and my “hot mess.” And as Kelly McGonigal states “your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.”
I find this research really empowering. I’ll never win the stress game through elimination. I will work to reduce unnecessary stress and pay attention to when changes are needed. But there will always be stressors I have to face. I can't eliminate stress, but I can “get better at stress.” Stress doesn’t have to mean heart disease and reduced relationship quality.
Interested in learning more? Check out the Stanford Mind and Body Lab for the research evidence, media attention and to sign up for a course on Rethinking Stress.