While reducing our responses to stress is important, a Stanford University research psychologist shares a unique perspective, indicating that stress can make us stronger, smarter and happier – if we learn how to open our minds to it.
Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., says that viewing stress more positively seems to encourage people to cope in ways that help them thrive.
If people actually embrace the concept of stress, it can make them stronger, smarter and happier, a Stanford expert says.
“Stress isn’t always harmful,” said Kelly McGonigal, a business school lecturer at Stanford and program developer for the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. “Once you appreciate that going through stress makes you better at it, it can be easier to face each new challenge.”
The Stanford News Service interviewed McGonigal, recently published a new book, The Upside of Stress, on the subject.
The initial study on stress mindsets, which was conducted by Stanford psychology Assistant Professor Alia Crum. It found the perspective that stress is a helpful part of life, rather than as harmful, is associated with better health, emotional well-being and productivity at work – even during periods of high stress.
This study reminds me of the groundbreaking research conducted over 30 years ago by Susan Kobialka, Ph.D., who determined that one of three protective “Hardiness” traits (against stressful circumstances) is viewing stress as a challenge (the other two are commitment and a sense of control).
Your perspective matters because it changes how your body respond to stress. Also, perceiving stress as harmful unhealthy coping responses, whether it’s getting drunk to “release” stress, procrastinating to avoid stress, or imagining worst-case scenarios.
Another study found that simply having the goal to avoid stress increased the long-term risk of outcomes like depression, divorce and getting fired, by increasing people’s reliance on harmful coping strategies. A more positive stress perception encourages coping in ways that will help you to thrive, whether it’s tackling the source of stress, seeking social support or finding meaning in it.
So Should You Tell Yourself Stress is Good For You?
In the course of researching his book and developing her own stress mindset interventions, Dr. McGonigal discovered that the most helpful mindset toward stress goes beyond a generally positive attitude toward stress. The three most protective beliefs about stress are: 1) to view your body’s stress response as helpful, not debilitating – for example, to view stress as energy you can use; 2) to view yourself as able to handle, and even learn and grow from, the stress in your life; and 3) to view stress as something that everyone deals with, and not something that proves how uniquely screwed up you or your life is.
The emerging science on stress mindsets shows that it is possible to change all of these attitudes, even if we are used to thinking of stress as harmful. For example, when you feel your heart pounding from anxiety, you think about how your body is trying to give you the energy you need to rise to the challenge. More importantly, changing any one of these attitudes can help you thrive in the face of ordinary stress as well as chronic or even traumatic stress.
When is Stress Harmful?
There is a reason stress has a bad reputation, and part of it is the evidence that chronic and traumatic stress can increase the risk of illness, depression and early mortality, among other things.
Choosing to see the upside of stress isn’t about denying the fact that stress can be harmful. It’s about trying to balance your mindset so that you feel less overwhelmed and hopeless about the fact that your life is stressful. We rarely get to choose the stress in our lives, and it isn’t realistic to think we can avoid stress. Given that life is going to be stressful, what do you gain by focusing on the fear that the reality of your life is killing you?
Psychologists have found that the ability to embrace stress requires a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. You have to be able to understand that two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time. It can be true that going through something stressful can make you sick or depressed, and it can also be true that the same stressful experience can ultimately make you stronger, more compassionate and more resilient over time.
What Should You DO When a Stressful Situation Occurs?
Stress is most likely to be harmful when the following conditions are present: it feels against your will, out of your control and utterly devoid of meaning. If you can change any of these conditions – by finding some meaning in it – you can reduce the harmful effects of stress.
The relationship between stress and meaning can be very helpful to understand. A 2013 study asked a broad national sample of adults in the U.S to rate how much they agreed with the statement, “Taking all things together, I feel my life is meaningful. “The researchers then looked at what distinguished people who strongly agreed with the statement from those who did not.
Surprisingly, every measure of stress that the researchers asked about predicted a greater sense of meaning in life. People who had experienced the highest number of stressful life events in the past were most likely to consider their lives meaningful. People who said they were under a lot of stress right now also rated their lives as more meaningful. Even time spent worrying about the future was associated with meaning.
One of the researchers’ main conclusions from this study is, “People with very meaningful lives worry more and have more stress than people with less meaningful lives.”
Rather than being a sign that something is wrong with your life, feeling stressed can be a barometer for how engaged you are in activities and relationships that are personally meaningful.
Additional Stress Mindset Tips
Dr. Konigal adds, one simple mindset reset that can help us face and find the good in the stress in our lives is to view it as an opportunity to learn and grow. The ability to learn from stress is built into the basic biology of the stress response. For several hours after you have a strong stress response, the brain is rewiring itself to remember and learn from the experience.
Stress alters your brain an imprint on your brain that prepares you to handle similar stress the next time you encounter it. Psychologists call the process of learning and growing from a difficult experience stress inoculation. Going through the experience gives your brain and body a stress vaccine.
This is why putting people through practice stress is a key training technique for NASA astronauts, emergency responders, elite athletes and others who have to thrive under high levels of stress.
An abundance of literature has pointed toward a clear link between stress and performance. This association is critical for understand the contextually-dependent nature of testing, diagnosis, and assessment, which can be influenced by such intrinsic and extrinsic factors.
Research in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) suggests that cognitive reappraisal, or the ability to change one’s thoughts in the presence of emotionally-charged stimuli, can improve responses to stressful situations such as test-taking. However, this body of work does not adequately address the role of stress mindset, or how one views the nature of stress itself and whether thoughts need to be changed in the first place.
A recent study (Crum, Akinola, Martin, & Fath, 2017) suggests that one’s overall mindset about the nature of stress is related to differential patterns of hormone production, emotional experience, attention biases, and cognitive flexibility (thinking with flexibility). The initial findings of the study were published on January 27 in the journal Anxiety, Stress, & Coping.
Stress mindset is the overarching belief that stress is either enhancing or debilitating for cognitive, psychological, affective, and hormonal outcomes. Individuals who hold a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset see daily life stressors as challenges for which they have adequate resources to meet expected demands. Those who hold a “stress-is-debilitating” mindset see stressors as overwhelming events for which they are lacking internal resources to meet external pressures. Specifically, individuals who endorse stress as a challenge, rather than as a problem, on a measure of stress mindset (Crum, Salovey, & Achor, 2013) tend to have better health, greater life satisfaction, lower cortisol reactivity (the “stress” hormone), and are more receptive to performance feedback by others.
Watch Dr. McGonigal’s Ted Talk on Stress
Charney, D. S. (2004). Psychobiological mechanisms of resilience and vulnerability: Implications for successful adaption to extreme stress. American Journal of Psychiatry 161(2). Pp. 195-216.
Crum, A., Akinola, M., Martin, A., & Fath, S. (2017). The Role of Stress Mindset in Shaping Cognitive, Emotional, & Physiological Responses to Challenging & Threatening Stress. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping.
Crum, A., Salovey, P. & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Frye, C. A., & Lacey, E. H. (1999). The neurosteroids DHEA and DHEAS may influence cognitive performance by altering affective state. Physiology & Behavior 66(1). Pp. 85-92.
Kirschbaum, C., Pirke, K. M., Hellhammer, D. H. (1993). The “Trier Social Stress Test” – a tool for investigating psychobiological stress responses in a laboratory setting. Neuropsychobiology, 28(1-2), Pp. 76-81.
Researchers Discover A Hidden Stress Benefit
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Stress is a vital response, needed to prepare us for dangerous situations. Without it, we can’t survive. It triggers several biochemical responses that mobilizes the organism and enables it to manage threatening situations. The so called fight or flight response has been repeatedly called into question, due to the results of behavioral studies. Newer findings revealed that humans show an increase in prosocial behavior under stress. In their investigation, Claus Lamm and his team from the University of Vienna shed light on the neural processes underlying this behavior.
In an experiment using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), participants were exposed to acute stress while trying to empathize with another person. At the same time, their brain activity was measured using fMRI. The researchers focused especially on stress-related changes of neural activity in the so-called “empathy network”.
A total of 80 male participants were asked to empathize with others while solving difficult tasks under time pressure, all the while receiving negative feedback on their performance. The effects of this psychological stress induction were measured through cortisol increase. Subsequently, participants were shown photos of painful medical procedures performed on the hand, and asked to vividly imagine the pain of the depicted patient. For some photos, participants received the additional information that the patient’s hand had been under anesthesia during the procedure. This required them to distinguish between their automatic aversive reaction to the image and the actual feelings of the patient, and thus intended to measure the participants’ ability to take the patient’s perspective and to regulate their own emotions. In the following, the researchers used the “dictator game”, a game developed in behavioral economics, to measure prosocial behavior. In this game, participants had to distribute a sum of money in whichever ratio they wanted between themselves and a stranger.
The results showed that the neural empathy network reacted more strongly to images of painful medical procedures when under stress. However, their neural reaction was equally strong when participants knew that the procedure was in fact not painful, speaking for a lack of perspective taking under stress. Additionally, neural activation correlated with the amount of money shared in a prosocial manner – the stronger the brain’s reaction to others’ pain, the more money the participant shared with the stranger.
Claus Lamm summarizes the findings as follows: “Based on their neural responses, stressed participants had a stronger emotional reaction to the pictures. However, this implies that they also ignored complex information about the actual situation the shown person was in. Our results thus support the hypothesis that humans show more empathy and are more prone to helping others when they are under stress, but that their perspective taking skills might deteriorate. In some circumstances, the stronger emotional response might thus result in aid that is uncalled for or inappropriate, for example when one’s first impression of another’s mental state does not match their actual emotion – e.g. when someone is crying out of joy. Hence, depending on the context and situation, stress can be either beneficial or detrimental in social situations.”
Increased neural responses to empathy for pain might explain how acute stress increases prosociality L. Tomova; J. Majdandzic; A. Hummer; C. Windischberger; M. Heinrichs; C. Lamm Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 2016; doi: 10.1093/scan/nsw146