Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.
A few years back, while crunching stats for my dissertation, I spent many nights in the student computer lab in the basement of the psychology department at Yale. On one particularly “dark” night, Bret Logan, head of IT in the psychology department who had come in late to code, saw the light in the student computer lab and popped his head in the door. With analyses to run and an early-morning meeting with my adviser, I was not in the mood for conversation. I shot him a look, whined about my busy schedule, and tried to get back to work. “Ah,” he said, sensing my stress, “Just a cold, dark, night on the side of Everest.”
In psychology, stress is defined as the experience or anticipation of threat or adversity in one’s goal-related efforts. Two points are worth highlighting in this definition. First is that stress comes — perhaps more often then not — in anticipation of threat or adversity. More important though is the second point: stress is invariably connected to our goal-related efforts. In other words, we only stress about things we care about. In fact, it is a dose-dependent relationship: the more we care, the more we stress. Think about it. If you want to stop stressing about something, stop caring about it.
The purpose of the body’s stress response is not to kill us, but rather to boost the body and mind into enhanced functioning, to help us grow and meet the demands we face. Though such beneficial performance, learning, and health-boosting effects are not always produced — and stress can and does have negative consequences — it is important to remember that these benefits are possible. A simple thought exercise can help: Think about the times in your life when you experienced a substantial amount of personal or professional growth, or times when you felt like you performed at your highest level. What was it that motivated and fueled you to grow, learn, and improve during these times? I’m willing to bet that those times invariably involved some stress or struggle.
What does it take to harness the positive aspects of stress and minimize the potentially debilitating effects? As Kelly McGonigal points out in her Ted talk, it is first about shedding the false and unhelpful belief that stress is going to kill us (a belief that ironically causes more stress).
The term we use in our research is mindset. Mindset is quite literally a setting of the mind that orients an individual to a particular set of associations and expectations. We can hold mindsets about lots of different things, and the mindsets we choose matter for outcomes. Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck’s research illustrates that adopting a mindset that intelligence is malleable (as opposed to fixed) matters in determining effort, learning and the ultimate development of knowledge. Yale Professor of Epidemiology Becca Levy’s research suggests that adopting a positive mindset about aging can improve the course of aging and even extend longevity. In our own research, Dr. Peter Salovey, Shawn Achor and I designed a measure for one’s stress mindset. What we find is that, holding the amount of stress and an individual’s ability to cope with stress constant, a stress-is-enhancing mindset (as opposed to a stress-is-debilitating mindset) is associated with better health, performance and well-being.
Our research also suggests that stress mindsets, like other mindsets, can be changed. People can be taught to adopt a stress-is-enhancing mindset, and reap the positive consequences including improved health and work performance.
When mountaineers commit to taking on Mount Everest, they’d be naïve to expect a smooth journey. The same, of course, is true of a dissertation. Did I really expect getting my PhD to be a walk in the park?— Alia J. Crum, Ph.D.
The fact that mindsets matter in determining the effects of stress does not mean that we should seek out any more stress. It also doesn’t mean that we need to view the circumstance causing the stress as a positive thing. Sometimes stress sucks, plain and simple. Cold, wind and rain on a climb are not positive events. That said, the process of experiencing these adversities can ultimately be a growing experience, especially in the right mindset.
This all brings me back to Bret. Admittedly, with my mind focused on the immediate task at hand, it took me a few days to reflect on the significance of what he said. What Bret was telling me, in his characteristically unique and insightful way, was that those stressful nights were part of what I had signed up for. When mountaineers commit to taking on Mount Everest, they’d be naïve to expect a smooth journey. The same, of course, is true of a dissertation. Did I really expect getting my PhD to be a walk in the park?
I’ve learned through both personal experience and our research that this applies to any number of stressful events, a big project at work, remodeling the house, switching careers, and even less appealing stressors like job loss and relationship conflict. It is in these moments of experienced or anticipated adversity that we have the capacity to achieve levels of growth and awareness – not just in spite of the stress, but because of it. The message is ultimately a positive one: If we are mindful of our mindsets about stress — and of the potential power of such mindsets — it may be possible to learn how to stress better. And to appreciate the real value in those cold, dark nights on the side of Everest.
For more information on the Stress Mindset Measure and research, email Alia Crum at [email protected]. For more information on Stress Mindset Trainings and Interventions, email Eric Karpinski at [email protected].