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Harnessing Stress for Good: The Power of Mindset

If most of what you know, practice, and teach about stress is based on the fight-or-flight paradigm, hold on to your hat. Recent scientific findings show mindset — how we think about stress — has the power to foster negative effects… or significantly enhance well-being.

According to Stanford researcher and clinical psychologist Alia Crum, assuming stress is never positive and must be avoided or managed is fundamentally flawed.

Why Mindset Matters

In a recent HERO Forum ( keynote, Dr. Crum pointed out that the research about stress effects is not so clear-cut. In fact, the right level of acute stress improves brain processing, memory, and focused attention. It’s also linked with quicker recovery, enhanced immunity, and physiological toughness. And despite chronic stress having established drawbacks, it’s linked with mental resilience, deeper relationships, and a greater appreciation for life.

Indeed. Periods of major personal or professional growth tend to come with stress, explains Crum. She asked the audience: Would the same level of growth be possible without stress and struggle? We need a certain amount of challenge to thrive.

Dr. Crum’s research focuses on how subjective mindsets can alter objective reality through behavioral, psychological, and physiological mechanisms. One study illustrates the transformative power of how we think about stress: Subjects who watched 3-minute “stress is positive” videos 3 times/week experienced a significant reduction in negative health symptoms and an increase in work performance. Those watching “stress is negative” videos did not have these positive outcomes.1

This finding builds on a 2012 study, where researchers found that simply believing stress is harmful or reporting a high level of stress raised the risk of premature death. Having both conditions created an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy: These subjects had a 43% increased risk of premature death.2

Rethinking Stress

Instead of hammering people with the message that stress is toxic and must be reduced, what if we reframe stress in a positive light… as something that can boost well-being and improve their lives?

It’s a nice idea, but Crum doesn’t recommend manipulation. Instead, she advocates that we help people understand the stress paradox… the positive and negative effects… along with the power of mindset. Help them recognize that power so they want to choose a mindset that views stress as natural and enhancing. Dr. Crum teaches a deliberate process:

  1. See it: Be present to what it is. Telling yourself it’s not really there doesn’t work; she recommends reflecting about the stressor and your reactions without judgment by asking:

  • Are your typical reactions facilitating your purpose?

  • What changes can you make in responding so the stress you experience can be enhancing as opposed to deteriorating?

  • What’s the opportunity, the learning insight, from this stress?

  1. Own it: You’re stressed because you care. Crum points out that we get stressed only by what we care deeply about. She suggests completing this statement: “I’m stressed about ___ because I care about ___.”

  2. Use it: “Stress is designed to facilitate,” Crum explains, “so leverage the stress response.” If the stress is giving you energy, motivation, a sense of urgency, how could you put that to good use?

Understanding that this approach is not about the following also is vital:

  • Denying the potentially harmful aspects of stress

  • Thinking of the stressor as positive (the experience of moving through it can be positive)

  • Seeking extra stress (instead, you’re honoring the paradox of stress).

fMRI studies show that learning to respond intentionally instead of reacting to stress actually changes how the brain processes stressful situations; brain activity shifts from reactive to conscious and deliberate.3

Changing the Message

Here’s how you can take a transformational approach to stress in your well-being program:

  1. Change your own mindset. Promoting a new way of thinking or doing tends to be more effective when you’ve experienced it yourself. Odds are you’ll gain important insights to apply to your work.

  2. Hold a stress science in-service. Update staff on research and ways to change the way your program talks and teaches about stress.

  3. Educate your population about the stress paradox. If you have wellness ambassadors, start there. Partner with your EAP to host an online, on-demand class; share a related story in a program blog post or newsletter.

  4. Teach Dr. Crum’s 3-step process for rethinking stress; share examples and help people apply it to their own situations through a Q & A forum, social media channel, or lunchtime wellness booth.

  5. Get your vendors on board. Ask them to update their approach to stress in products and services, with front-line staff trained accordingly so employees and families receive consistent messages.

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