Your Mindset Influences Whether Stress Helps or Hurts YouWe tend to lump stress into one big “bad” category. But in actuality, stress comes in many shapes and sizes and is not all bad.

Stress can often accompany a positive event, for example going on a first date, meeting with important clients, or traveling to explore new parts of the world. This is called eustress. Eustress is actually useful and can provide motivation, energy, and focus to help you perform at your best and increase productivity.

Your mind and body are powerful allies. How you think affects how you feel. And how you feel affects your thinking. What you believe about something has a profound immediate and long-term impact on how it affects your body. The mindset that you adopt can make you more adaptive and help you suffer less and perform better in all aspects of life. Or it can make literally everything worse.

This holds true for stress. Science has discovered that whether stress helps or hurts you is largely influenced by your mindset about it. Your mindset shapes how your body responds.

What Exactly Is Stress?

On a biological level, stress is a normal physical response that happens whenever you ask your body to adapt or respond in some way to anything. Technically, you are stressing your body every time you get up out of a chair, learn a new skill, or go for a run. In your brain, when stress is not severe and neurons have time to recover, it’s a positive thing, causing connections to become stronger paving neural pathways.

Stress is just part of living — even healthy living.

Although stress is essential, a problem does arise when you have too much of it long-term, and you can’t or don’t do anything to help your brain and body deal with it. In this case, it can harm your physical brain and its functioning. Chronic stress can make you forgetful and emotional and increase your susceptibility to disease, anxiety, depressionAlzheimer’s, and many mental illnesses. When stress becomes a chronic condition, it can have negative, lasting consequences for your brain and body.

Your Mindset Influences Whether Stress Helps or Hurts You

What Exactly Is Mindset?

Your mindset is a set of beliefs that shape how you make sense of the world and yourself. It influences how you think, feel, and behave in any given situation. Until you consciously choose your mindset, it is formed mostly by your subconscious brain from your life experiences.

As we grow up, we all learn certain beliefs and attitudes about ourselves, others, the world, and how to conduct ourselves in the world from family, religion, school, culture, and life events. For a while, we just believe these things to be “right” or “true” without ever even being aware that we have them much less questioning their authenticity and appropriateness for us in our life at that time.

Your belief systems color every aspect of your life, and you interpret and interact with the world based on these core beliefs whether you are conscious of them or not. At any time, you can become aware of the subconscious belief system that shapes your mindset and consciously choose to see the world differently.

Your Mindset Affects Your Body

Science has proven that your mindset can influence your body in many ways. This is the well-known “placebo” effect, and it’s real and scientifically measurable. While the placebo effect is most often associated with medications, the phenomenon can be present in any situation and influence almost anything.

For instance, one study showed that if people thought of physical activity as exercise their bodies benefitted more than people doing the same activity but thinking of it as work. In another study, researchers discovered that people’s beliefs about the quality of their sleep determined bodily effects — not the actual quality of their sleep.

The opposite is also true. What you think can have real negative consequences for your body. This is called the “nocebo” effect.

Your Mindset Influences Whether Stress Helps or Hurts You

The Placebo Effect and Stress

Science shows that what you believe about stress influences how it affects your body. If you think that stress is a threat, harmful in every way, and debilitating, your belief is going to guide how your body and brain react. Alternately, if you believe that stress is challenging, motivating, and has the potential to promote positive, personal growth, your body will respond differently.

Dr. Alia Crum, professor of psychology at Stanford University and Director of the Stanford Mind & Body Lab, conducted a study to test what she calls “stress mindset.” In the study, researchers randomly assigned employees at a financial institution to one of three groups. In the “stress-is-debilitating” group, 164 employees watched videos that portrayed stress as harmful, causing illness and mistakes at work. In the “stress-is-enhancing” group, 163 people watched videos that portrayed stress as useful, improving immunity, creativity, and work quality under pressure. A control group of 61 people didn’t watch any videos.

After a week, the researchers discovered that people who had watched the stress-is-enhancing videos had fewer negative health symptoms, like less insomnia, muscle tension, and backaches. They also reported higher levels of engagement and performance at work. In contrast, people who had watched the stress-is-debilitating videos thought stress had more harmful effects.

Public Speaking and Stress

In a second study, the researchers showed that people with a stress-is-enhancing mindset actually responded better to stress. During a public speaking task, people with this mindset had more adaptive physiological responses than did the people with the stress-is-debilitating mindset. The researchers evaluated this by measuring cortisol levels. People with the stress-is-enhancing mindset were also more open to feedback — a necessary step toward personal growth.

Your Mindset Influences Whether Stress Helps or Hurts You

Dr. Crum asks us to think about stress in ways that allow stress to help us grow and bring out our best rather than diminish our health and performance. The public health message that we are inundated with is that stress is bad. But the truth is that the effects of stress are uncertain, like most everything in life. The way stress affects you depends largely on your beliefs about it.

How You Can Use This Information to Help You

What you believe will happen can have surprisingly strong effects on what does happen. Our mindsets shape what we attend to, how we interpret events, and how we react, all of which can change how our bodies respond. This is precisely where you have the opportunity to insert intentional influence and help yourself.

In Huberman Lab Podcast #56: Dr. Alia Crum: Science of Mindsets for Health & Performance, Dr. Crum tells us that the difference between harmful and helpful stress is in our motivation and mindset. When you view stress as debilitating, you tend to spend a lot of energy doing everything you can to avoid the stressor and trying to eliminate it. Alternatively, if you view stress as an opportunity for growth, you can spend your energy supporting yourself and finding the positive in the negative.

She cites a study with Navy Seals where researchers followed 174 candidates through one of the most extreme stressful training experiences. They found that having a stress-is-enhancing mindset predicted greater persistence through training, faster obstacle course times, and fewer negative evaluations from peers and instructors.

Your Stress Mindset Is Up To You

Your stress mindset is how you view stress and what it means to you.

  • Is it a threat that will negatively affect your emotional, physical, and mental health? A negative stress mindset views stress as harmful, a threat — something to be avoided at all costs. When you avoid stress, you also avoid challenges and opportunities that can help you grow and reach your goals.
  • Or is it a challenge that has the potential to motivate you to grow and perform at a higher level? A positive stress mindset means that it is a challenge to be faced, asking you to perform at your best. When your body has a physical stress response, it is mobilizing energy to help you meet a challenge. You could interpret the feeling as excitement, instead of anxiety, and use it as fuel to perform better.

What is your stress mindset?

Your Mindset Influences Whether Stress Helps or Hurts You

How To Change Your Mindset

In a sense, our mindsets are a portal between our conscious and subconscious brains. The default programming of your subconscious brain determines your mindset until you bring it to your conscious awareness. This is basically the practice of mindfulness. In any situation, start asking yourself, “What is my mindset about this?” Once you are aware of it, you can shape and guide it to help you.

In the podcast, Dr. Crum suggests the following steps to adopt a more stress enhancing mindset:

  1. Acknowledge that you are stressed. Own it. Feel it.
  2. Welcome it and realize that you are feeling this way because you care. Every time you feel stressed, it is because inherent in the stress is something that matters to you. Reconnect to the feeling of caring and the thing you care about. Ask yourself “What is it that I care about here?”
  3. Utilize the stress response to achieve the thing you care about instead of spending your time, effort, money, and energy trying to eliminate the stressor.

Conclusion

How your body experiences stressful situations is strongly influenced by your mind. You have the power to change and guide your mind. Becoming aware of your beliefs and reframing your mindset to see stress as beneficial can positively impact how your body handles it.

Your mindset is not inconsequential. It is literally the frame through which your brain views the world. It dramatically influences your health and wellbeing. What you believe, what you expect, and what you think determine your body’s response to stress. This is also true with many other things in life.

Here is a fascinating TED Talk on “Change your mindset, change the game” by Dr. Alia Crum:

2 Comments

  1. Debbie,

    This is certainly food for thought! It seems to me this applies to certain types of stressors but once we enter the realm of chronic stress or trauma, it may be a different story. Of course, our mindset still has an influence but too much trauma does disable the body/brain in specific ways.

    • Sandra, the research did not specify the type of stressor. Although, I do think you are right in that there are most definitely limits. That’s why I did include this statement “Although stress is essential, a problem does arise when you have too much of it long-term, and you can’t or don’t do anything to help your brain and body deal with it.” I do not think I imply in the article that extreme chronic stress, like abuse or PTSD, can be “cured” with mindset. That certainly was not my intent. However, I do not doubt that even extreme conditions can be helped or hurt by a person’s mindset. What goes on in your mind is scientifically proven to have immediate and long-term repercussions for your body. It is all connected through the lymphatic system.

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