It’s been said that…
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
That’s a great quote, but more than just a cool Etsy project or words on a coffee mug, research suggests that our beliefs can indeed have a significant influence on our experience of life.
For instance, our beliefs about the nature of talent and ability, can influence the way we approach finding a career we enjoy, our relationship success (or lack thereof), not to mention how well we do in school, our athletic success (PDF), and more.
So in a similar vein, some researchers have recently begun to wonder if our beliefs about stress could affect our experience of stress – and perhaps even the nature of the stress response itself. As in, maybe stress can have a positive impact in our lives, physically, mentally, and emotionally?
But before we get into this, take a moment to answer these 8 questions that will give you your stress mindset score:
In last week’s post, we saw how your appraisal of stress can affect performance. How seeing performances as a challenge tends to lead to better performances, while seeing performances as a threat tends to result in worse performances.
Of course, sometimes it’s not so easy to change your appraisal of stress in the moment. As in the example of a master class, where you show up to unexpectedly find your super judgmental summer festival nightmare of a stand partner sitting in the front row.
It’s difficult not to see this as a threat; and as much as you’d like to, you can’t magically teleport them away. So is there anything you can do?
A recent Stanford-Columbia-Duke study (Crum, Akinola, Martin, & Fath, 2017) suggests that there may be yet another factor in the stress-performance equation that can help buffer you from the negative effects of stress, regardless of whether the situation feels like a challenge or a threat.
And that’s your “stress mindset.”
Your stress mindset
This goes beyond the immediate sense of whether you have what it takes to meet the demands of the situation, and is more of a big-picture view of your beliefs about stress. Whether you see stress as something that has the potential to be a net positive in your life – or a net negative.
For instance, the master class situation might feel like more of a threat than a challenge. But if you have a stress-is-enhancing mindset, you might still believe that the experience will lead to positive outcomes overall. After all, it’s still an opportunity to practice staying focused on the music and not the audience. Which will help you get better at this before the upcoming competition where your ability to avoid worrying about the judges will be even more critical. You will still probably learn some new things from the experience that could help take your playing to another level. And the extra energy that you feel when stressed often enhances your performance in different ways, so this could very well be one of those days too.
Meanwhile, those who have a “stress-is-debilitating” mindset might expect the experience to result in negative outcomes overall. Like being more shaky, making more technical errors, embarrassing yourself in front of people you already feel insecure in front of, failing to impress a teacher you’d like to study with, feeling your confidence take a big hit, not getting into the grad program you desperately want to, and ultimately, ending up living in van down by the river .
And why does this matter?
Why mindset matters
Stress mindsets seem to matter, because you can’t reduce the demands of a performance in the moment (i.e. you can’t Thanos the critics in your audience out of existence).
And you can’t suddenly increase the resources you bring to the table either (i.e. by pausing time and squeezing in some extra work before restarting time ).1
So in much the same way that our mindset about the nature of intelligence can affect test performance, how persistent we are, to what degree we are willing to take risks, and so on, could our beliefs about the nature of stress change and shape our mental, physical, and emotional experience of stress as well? Such that perhaps stress needn’t feel like such an unpleasant thing?
Stress mindsets and mock interviews
124 participants started out with a series of assessments and salivary samples to measure mood, their stress mindset, and stress response.
Then half of the participants were shown a 3-min video to get them into a stress-is-enhancing mindset, while the others were shown a 3-min video to induce a stress-is-debilitating mindset.
Then they each went through a mock job interview, consisting of an 8-min speech and a 5-min Q&A, where they discussed their dream job and strengths and weaknesses in front of two interviewers.
To induce a challenge state, half of the participants received positive feedback from the interviewers about 30 seconds into the interview – where they would nod, smile, and say “You are very clear and manage to put your personality across. You are very self-assured and authentic, really great job”.
Whereas to induce a threat state, the other participants received negative feedback from the interviewers – where they’d frown, shake their heads, and say “I feel that you could be much clearer and more articulate. Think about what you are saying before you say it”.
So what kind of effect did the participants’ stress mindset have on their experience of the stressful mock interviews?
Based on the salivary samples collected, the participants’ cortisol (a “bad” or “breaking down” hormone) levels were the same regardless of their stress mindset. However, the stress-is-enhancing mindset group had significantly greater increases in dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate (DHEAS) – the “good” or “building up” counterpart to cortisol.
Meaning, the stress-is-enhancing mindset folks had a more performance-enhancing physiological response to stress than the stress-is-debilitating folks.
Emotional & cognitive effects
There were also significant emotional and cognitive benefits to the stress-is-enhancing mindset – though only for those who were in a challenge state.
For instance, those who had a stress-is-enhancing mindset and were in a challenge state had the most positive emotional experience of all the participants. And they exhibited the most cognitive flexibility, and ability to stay focused on positive stimuli as well.
All to say that while the research in this area is still pretty new, it does seem that a stress-is-enhancing mindset has its benefits – especially if you also approach an upcoming performance or audition as a challenge rather than a threat.
So how do you get yourself to internalize a stress-is-enhancing mindset?
You can watch the same 3-min videos that the researchers used to induce a stress-is-enhancing mindset in this study:
- Stress mindset manipulation videos (the first two were the ones used in this study; the others were used in previous studies)
And if you want to kick things up a notch, the researchers even put together a short mini-course or “toolkit” with additional videos and activities:
And if you have a few more minutes, here’s psychologist and author Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk on this subject:
Crum, A. J., Akinola, M., Martin, A., & Fath, S. (2017). The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 30(4), 379–395.