Mindset Matters in Defusing Chronic Stress

Your attitudes and beliefs affect your stress response

Why not adopt a stress-is-enhancing mindset?

In her 2006 book, Mindset, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck explored how our mindset affects our view of and experience in the world. More recently, Alia Crum and her colleagues extended the concept of mindset as a distinct and meaningful variable that influences stress response. They further proposed the idea of a stress mindset with two forms. A person with a stress-is-enhancing mindset believes that stress can improve stress-related outcomes such as performance and productivity. On the other hand, a person with a stress-is-debilitating mindset believers that stress worsens stress-related outcomes.

Crum and colleagues devised a Stress Mindset Measure. It demonstrated that mindset is, indeed, distinct from other stress-influencing variables. Mindset meaningfully relates to stress-related outcomes. The researchers showed that watching a 3-minute video clip that was biased toward depicting the enhancing (as opposed to debilitating) nature of stress can change stress mindset. Finally, researchers found that a stress-enhancing mindset predicted a medium level (as opposed to too high or too low) of the stress hormone cortisol and greater willingness to solicit feedback while under stress. Thus, it appears that priming helps people adopt a stress-enhancing mindset, which can lead to positive health and performance outcomes.

A follow-up study by Crum and colleagues extended this line of thinking. The study confirmed that college students could learn a stress-is-enhancing mindset by watching a short video. Students that formed a stress-enhancing mindset produced more of a growth-supporting hormone (DHEAS) than students with a stress-is-debilitating mindset when faced with either a threatening or challenging situation. Also, when faced with a stress appraised as challenging, students with a stress-is-enhancing mindset had greater increases in positive mood and greater cognitive flexibility than students with a stress-is-debilitating mindset. If we adopt a stress-is-enhancing mindset, we may be able see more positive aspects of stressful situations that we formerly considered as bad.

Could a stress-is-enhancing mindset reduce risk of premature death? Researchers at the University of Wisconsin used data from the 1998 National Health Interview Survey to find out. The survey collected information from 28,753 people who formed a representative cross-section of American adults. At the beginning of the study, people who reported their level of stress. Those who said that stress affected their health to some degree or a lot had an 80 and 326 percent higher risk of self-reporting poor health, respectively, compared to those who reported that stress had hardly any or no effect on their health.

But here’s the kicker: Neither the amount of stress nor the perception of stress independently predicted mortality after eight years of follow-up. But the presence of lots of stress and the perception of the stress as bad increased the risk of death by 43 percent. This important study shows that it isn’t stress as such but our perception of stress that predicts our risk of dying early. Our mindset or attitude about the stressful events in our life can matter more than the events themselves.

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