We don’t perform at our best or live to our fullest by simply eliminating stress. Our stress responses are what enable us to focus and perform. Stress helps us to push through difficult situations and, in the right amounts, enhances our ability to think and learn. Periodic physiological stressors are important not just for physical fitness but also for cognitive health.
So, instead of eliminating stress, we have to channel it and learn to use it to our advantage. Stress is a tool and a resource that we must be able to control. The extent to which we internalize this idea and view stress as an enhancing mechanism rather than a debilitating force to be avoided defines our “stress mindset”.
Stress – Enhancing or Debilitating?
A positive, or “enhancing” stress mindset means that we believe that our stress responses help us to perform better. With this perspective, we embrace stress as a necessary and helpful part of living a fulfilling, strenuous life.
In a negative, or “debilitating” stress mindset, we view stress as something harmful that impairs our ability to function and that should always be avoided. If stress is bad, then doing something that causes and requires a stress response like a hard workout, starting a business, having a difficult conversation with a loved one, or practicing public speaking should also be avoided. As one could imagine, those with negative stress mindsets dedicate a lot of energy toward avoiding challenges.
In a sense, our mindsets are self-fulfilling prophecies. When we believe that stress is an asset that can help us, it changes our behavior and physiological responses in ways that improve our performance and encourage adaptability. When we believe that stress is debilitating and to be avoided at all times, our stress responses skew more towards threat and anxiety.
Enhancing stress mindsets and active coping
More resilient people use their stress responses to actively engage the challenges in front of them and “make problems go away by solving them.” Their stress patterns are high-amplitude cycles of engagement and recovery. This perspective improves their perceptions of control and biases their stress responses toward challenge, rather than threat. This has important downstream effects on cognition and physical performance.
Debilitating stress mindsets and passive coping
When we believe that all stress is harmful, it shapes our world in a way that makes us more prone to the negative aspects of chronic stress.
Actively facing and solving problems is more immediately stressful than ignoring them. So, if we feel that stress is bad and to be avoided, then we’re more likely to choose passive coping mechanisms and ignore our problems rather than deal with them. As a result, we bear a constant growing burden of anxiety caused by the weight of our unresolved issues.
The avoidance of stress increases stress. It shifts our stress patterns from a cyclical high-and-low process with phases of activity and recovery to more of a flat, constant drain on our resources. These passive coping methods (making problems go away by ignoring/avoiding them) produce “ironic effects” and compound long-term issues. This leads to stress profiles with lower spikes in acute stress but higher levels of constant, chronic anxiety.
Stress is necessary and helpful in the right context. Stress is critical for our performance and productivity, our health and wellbeing, and our learning and growth. Without cycles of stress, we don’t so much rest and recover as languish and stagnate.
How to help shift toward a stress-is-enhancing mindset
The first step in improving your stress mindset is to build awareness of how you respond to challenging situations. Like all skills, your stress mindset will change based on context. You may enjoy and harness your stress response during physical challenges, but avoid it at all costs during social situations.
Once you have awareness of your tendencies you can hone in on specific areas of your life where your stress mindset tends to stray to the ‘stress is debilitating’ perspective.
Your self-talk can play an important role in framing your stress mindset. By having an awareness of your ongoing internal dialogue during challenging moments, you can gain a lever to better manage your perspective.
For example, if you’re feeling a strong stress response before a big presentation at work or a difficult workout, you can choose to explain this to yourself in one of two ways:
Stress-is-debilitating – “I’m nervous!”
Stress-is-enhancing – “I’m excited!”
Either of these statements could be true. The perspective you take will determine which one of them becomes your reality.
When people learn to reframe their pre-event jitters as being excited and feeling the benefits of their nervous system ramping up to help them meet a challenge, they tend to perform better. Their stress response shifts more toward challenge rather than threat. They think more clearly, have more control over their stress levels, and recover faster when it’s over.
“I’m excited!” is just one example of this positive framing. Depending on the specifics of your situation, you can probably think of other ways to think of your body’s stress response as an adaptive, helpful process.
The important thing is that you trust in the resilience of your mind and body, and internalize the idea that your stress response is part of what enables you to face difficult challenges. By developing a strong stress mindset you’ll be better prepared for handling tough situations. You’ll help to shift your physiology toward better recovery in between efforts and improve your long-term performance and adaptability.