Thriving on stress

Stress is generally thought of as bad for you. But there’s some new research by  Alia Crum, Peter Salovey, and Shawn Achor that suggests that in some cases it can actually do you good.

What makes the difference is not the amount of stress, as previously thought (psychologists used to believe some level of stress is good for you, leading to increased performance – what they called ‘eustress’).

Rather, the factor that makes the difference is your mindset – your beliefs and expectations about stress. If you have a general belief that stress has a bad effect and should be avoided – what the researchers called the stress-is-debilitating mindset – you don’t perform as well under stress as someone who believes that stress encourages learning and growth – the stress-is-enhancing mindset.

The really interesting part of the study is the finding that mindset can change. The researchers showed a subset of study participants a series of 3-minute videos over the period of a week, focusing on either debilitating or enhancing effects of stress. The subjects who saw the ‘enhancing’ videos actually reported increases in both well-being and performance.

Of course, this is not to say that organisations shouldn’t care how much stress they throw at their employees – everyone, no matter what their mindset, would eventually be adversely affected by chronic high stress levels. But it does suggest that mindset plays a significant role. This is good news for the individual, because what you choose to believe is, to some extent at least, under your control.

If you’re like me, you will now want to know “where can I see those enhancing 3-minute videos?” A comment on the HBR report on the study suggests that the videos will eventually become available at http://www.rethinkstress.com/, but given that this is the website for a corporate training programme based on the research, and that the suggested date when the videos were supposed to be published has already come and gone, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

So, it’s time to adopt a ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude to maintaining a resilient mindset. Think about the implications of having a ‘stress-is-enhancing’ mindset. Actively look for videos, articles and books about people who have endured challenges and come out stronger as a result. Hang out with positive people – not the kind of ‘positive thinkers’ who see everything through rose coloured glasses and insist that everything is great even when it clearly isn’t, but people who accept that there are challenges and who believe that they can learn and grow as a result of facing them.

As a footnote for those interested in the workings of the mind (and I would definitely recommend that people using NLP methods for personal change have a look at this), the preview of the research paper has an interesting section setting out current thinking on the differences between ‘schemas’, mindsets and beliefs (starts on page 20). As usual, a parasitical academic publisher stands between us and viewing the paper in full, but there’s enough visible to spark some ideas.

It’s also interesting to consider the idea that some stress is good for you in the light of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of ‘Antifragility‘. I’m not an expert on this concept, but if you’re a fan, how does the idea of mindset combine with it?

Image: Smile by kirsche22 as sxc.hu

Stress can be good for you – if you have the right mindset
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