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I remember getting the call in the middle of the night like it was yesterday. I was sound asleep but immediately awake. Thankfully, no one was hurt. However, a family member had made an illegal choice and was in trouble. I changed from my pajamas into jeans. As I pulled my jeans on, I said to myself “Ok, we’re going to learn from this. That’s how we’ll make something good come out of this really stressful and unfortunate situation.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was viewing stress as an opportunity to learn and grow. I had a positive mindset around the difficult circumstance rather than a negative mindset.
What Does a Positive Mindset Around Stress Look Like?
Psychologist Alia Crumb and her colleagues developed the Stress Mindset Measure.
Which set of statements do you agree with more strongly?
Mindset 1: Stress is Harmful
- Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality.
- Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity.
- Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth.
- The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided
Mindset 2: Stress is Enhancing
- Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity.
- Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality.
- Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth.
- The effects of stress are positive and should be utilized.
The researchers found that while most people can relate to both mindsets, they still view stress as more harmful than helpful. This is true for men and women, and not influenced by age.1
What Does Research Say?
Here are two research findings that help us better understand the advantages of a positive mindset around stress.
- The effect you expect is the one you get.
The first research finding comes from several studies by psychologist Alia Crum that demonstrate our bodies react based on our expectations. For example, a study of hotel house cleaning staff showed physical changes based on messages they received about the exercise involved in their work.
To start, those that reported they didn’t exercise were divided into 3 groups. The group that learned the calorie counts of lifting bed mattresses, cleaning bathrooms, and pushing heavy carts of dirty linens from a 3-minute video and poster hung in their lounge, lost weight and body fat, lowered their blood pressure, and even liked their job better than the group that got a message that their work was bad for their health and the control group who got no message.
Those who received information about the similarity of their job tasks to exercise and each one’s calorie burn had their view of stress changed which then altered how their bodies responded.
- There’s another important stress hormone to consider.
Here are some findings from other studies looking at the stress hormones released during stress. You’ve heard of adrenaline and cortisol as the two hormones released during our fight-or-flight response to stress.
Another hormone released is called DHEA. “In the same way that testosterone helps your body grow stronger from physical exercise, DHEA helps your brain grow stronger from stressful experiences. It also counters some of the effects of cortisol,” writes Kelly McGonigal in The Upside of Stress.
What research has shown is that the ratio between cortisol and DHEA can influence the long-term consequences of stress especially when that stress is chronic. “Higher levels of cortisol can be associated with impaired immune function and depression, for example. In contrast, higher levels of DHEA have been linked to a reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease, neurodegeneration, and other diseases we typically think of as stress related,” explained McGonigal.
So let’s recap: your body responds to stress based on your expectations, and there is a stress hormone that has a protective measure. Pretty cool!
Why Does This Matter?
Why does it matter if we have a negative mindset around stress? Simply put, a negative view of stress is associated with very different outcomes than a positive perspective. And, they’re not the outcomes that benefit wellbeing.
Crumb’s research shows that people who believe stress is enhancing:
- Are less depressed and more satisfied with their lives than those who believe stress is harmful.
- Have more energy and fewer health problems.
- Are happier and more productive at work.
- Have a different relationship to the stress in their lives: they are more likely to view stressful situations as a challenge, not an overwhelming problem.
- They have greater confidence in their ability to cope with those challenges, and they are better able to find meaning in difficult circumstances.
My Most Stressful Circumstance
Without a doubt, my divorce was my most stressful event … ever. Even more stressful than my parents’ divorce.
My wellbeing suffered tremendously. Physically, mentally, and emotionally I was in deep trouble with Lyme disease and all its symptoms and a broken heart.
I knew I had to find a way forward for myself and my children.
My family and friends showed up for me and my kids in amazing ways! I relied on healthcare professionals to help put me back together physically and emotionally. I read as much as I could to help me understand my past and the pathway forward.
Part of my treatment was to boost my DHEA levels. I like knowing that over time it helped my brain grow stronger and improved my resilience.
Because this excessive stress was so painful and I was in survival mode, I couldn’t flip my mindset until years later. 10+ years later, I can see that I learned and grew a lot. For example, I learned to:
- Ask for help.
- Set more reasonable expectations of and boundaries around what I was able to accomplish.
- Seek relationships that had more equitable give and take.
Because of my divorce, I have greater confidence in my ability to cope with challenges … I believe I can show up for myself and my loved ones when hard circumstances arise. And, I can always find meaning in stressful circumstances.
- McGonigal, K. (2015). The Upside of Stress. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.