A stress-is-debilitating mindset is a self-fulfilling prophecy: stress reduces performance and adversely impacts health. However, individuals who have a different mindset and view stress as enhancing rather than debilitating find that stress increases their performance and even health.
How do you respond to stress? The common wisdom is that stress is debilitating — that is, if you are stressed, you are less effective and productive. However, a series of three studies conducted by a team of researchers led by Yale Ph.D. candidate Alia Crum (now a professor at Stanford) and including current Yale President Peter Salovey, raised a provocative question: What if stress is debilitating because most of us believe that stress is debilitating? In other words, the researchers were suggesting that how we respond to stress — by being more or less effective and productive — depends on our mindset. If we believe stress is debilitating, the researchers argued, we respond poorly to stress. If, on the other hand, we believe that stress is enhancing, we respond more positively to stress. A ‘positive’ response would include, for example, using stress as a motivator and energy boost.
The results of the three studies are unequivocal: mindset makes a difference in how we respond to stress.
Nearly 400 employees of a large financial institution participated in the first study, which explored whether mindset was actually distinct from the other variables that influence how we respond to stress, specifically: amount (we respond differently depending on whether we’re dealing with minor stress or major stress) and the ability to cope (some people respond to stress better than others). Using a newly developed test for stress mindset (called Stress Mindset Measure or SMM), the study showed little correlation between mindset and the two other variables. In other words, mindset is not just a redundant stress response factor that reflects the amount of stress or the ability to cope; it’s a distinct variable that impacts how we respond to stress.
Even more interesting, the first study also showed a correlation between mindset and response. For example, participants who, based on the SMM, endorsed a stress-is-enhancing mindset reported less depression and anxiety and more energy in response to stress than participants who endorsed a stress-is-debilitating mindset.
The second study, using the same employees from the first study, explored whether it’s possible to change people’s stress mindset. Participants watched one of two series of videos — one series of videos emphasizing the benefits of stress, one series of videos emphasizing the harm of stress. A few days later, they took the SMM test, as well as tests measuring work performance and psychological symptoms (e.g., feelings of anxiety or depression). The results showed that the stress mindset could be primed: watching stress-is-debilitating videos led to stress-is-debilitating mindsets in participants, and vice-versa. The study also repeated the correlation observed in study 1: participants with a stress-is-enhancing mindset reported better work performance and less psychological symptoms than participants with a stress-is-debilitating mindset.
Having proven that a stress-is-enhancing mindset leads to improvements in health and work performance (as reported by the participants), the next step was to determine how mindset is linked to better health and performance. In a third study, the researchers focused on how mindset impacted the behavioural response to stress (specifically the desire for feedback) and the physiological response (cortisol level, which governs whether a response is calm or excited). Participants in the study, drawn from an undergraduate personality psychology course, were placed in a stressful situation (being judged on a speech). The study showed that participants with a stress-is-enhancing mindset wanted feedback after the stress — a positive behavioural response.
Physiologically, previous research has shown that the optimal cortisol level in times of stress is moderate — neither too low so that the individual doesn’t sufficiently respond to the stress, nor too high so that the individual overreacts to the stress. This third study revealed that, physiologically, a stress-is-enhancing mindset led to the optimal cortisol levels (cortisol levels rose or decreased under stress depending on whether the individuals had naturally low or high cortisol levels).
Mindset makes a difference. Stress can be debilitating, as many assume, but it can also enhance work performance and even lead to physiological changes that enable a more positive response. As a result, managing stress, either for ourselves or for our employees, is no longer just a question of reducing stress. In fact, in the workplace, stress can be helpful. The challenge is to ensure that we or our employees have the right mindset to be able to use stress as a positive influence on our work. Managers especially must emphasize the benefits of stress when, for example, setting deadlines or stretch goals. Negatively positioning the stress — e.g. “if you miss this deadline, there will be consequences” — will be counterproductive. Instead, approach the stressful situation positively (e.g. “We’ve been in this situation before, and have had some of our greatest successes under tight deadlines”). Mindset is powerful, and it’s up to managers to help instil the right mindset in their employees.
Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response. Alia J. Crum and Peter Salovey. Shawn Achor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (April 2013).
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