Stress Mindset

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Volume 17, Number 11

Stress, often defined as the perception that challenges exceed available resources for coping, is commonly viewed as something to be minimized because of its harmful effects. Indeed, both chronic stress and ongoing daily hassles have been associated with poorer health. However, stress is a part of life and there is evidence that trying to avoid stress is associated with an increased risk of depression. Trying to avoid stress can itself create additional sources of stress. Furthermore, persons found to have high levels of well-being and longer lives frequently report having substantial stress in their lives.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., the author of The Upside of Stress, defines stress as “what arises when something you care about is at stake.” Studies indicate that persons reporting their lives to be very meaningful also report high levels of stress. Because stress is inherent in most important and meaningful responsibilities and activities in life, an alternative to trying to retreat from stress is to have a proactive approach toward stress and embrace it with a growth mindset. Decades of research on stress and coping reveals that how one appraises stress (and resources for coping) is central to determining whether and to what extent it will have harmful effects on one’s health.

When experiencing stress, a proactive mindset does not avoid awareness of the challenges or threats that are present, but acknowledges these and then moves to a mindset that the situation is an opportunity for resilience. McGonigal reviews the physiological differences in a “threat response” (self-defense reaction to stress) and a “challenge response” (engagement reaction to stress). In both cases, heart rate increases but with a threat response there is also blood vessel constriction and inflammation. A challenge response is more akin to how the body behaves with exercise… blood vessels relax and the heart actually beats with more force, producing more energy. If they become chronic, the physiological changes associated with the threat response increase risk for cardiovascular disease.

Persons can learn to foster a challenge response to stress. This includes focusing on the resources one has to address the situation… experience, knowledge, social support, etc. Focusing on bigger-than-self goals also contributes to a growth mindset in the face of stress. This involves being mindful of the meaningfulness or social implications of the situation, as opposed to narrowly focusing inward on oneself. Oxytocin, a neurohormone often referred to as the “love hormone,” is released when a person is engaged in prosocial behavior, and oxytocin tends to have anti-stress physiological effects on the body, such as reducing blood pressure. Connecting one’s values to one’s response to the situational challenges is a component of finding meaning when stressed. A proactive approach to stress involves psychological flexibility, that is, effectively using a range of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in varying situations to be productive and well.

When asked to describe the periods of most growth in life, people often refer to times that were stressful. Persons may benefit from stressful periods in life without intending to do so, but a growth mindset toward stress can help optimize such growth. Given that stress is inherent in life, how people think about and respond to stress are key factors that contribute to health and well-being.

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