Tackle Stress with a New Mindset

By Dr. Ryan Niemiec

Are you a "glass half-full" kind of person? When the word "stress" comes to mind, even the most optimistic person probably has a negative reaction. Most people don't wish for stressful events, but research shows that stress can actually be helpful for you if you develop the right mindset about it.

Consider two points of view or mindsets: “Stress is harmful” and “Stress is helpful.” Here are some statements associated with each mindset:

1. Stress is harmful:

  • Stress blocks my learning, growth, and productivity.
  • Stress worsens my health and zest level.
  • Stress should be avoided because its effects are negative.

2. Stress is helpful:

  • Stress enhances my learning, growth, and productivity.
  • Stress improves my health and zest level.
  • Stress should be used because its effects are positive.

Which of the two statements do you agree with more strongly? Is it “Stress is harmful” or “Stress is helpful”?

Consider the reason(s) you chose that statement. What comes to your mind? If you’re like most people, you generally think stress is harmful. It turns out that mindset may cause you more harm than good. Having a "stress is helpful" mindset may yield big benefits for you.

Stress is generally thought of as bad—something negative that hurts you. In part, this is because stress has gotten a bad rap over the years. And some of that is for good reason. There’s no doubt that stress can hurt you, negatively impacting you on all levels—physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. Too much stress, called distress or chronic stress, can bring on certain diseases and disorders, make existing pain and chronic illnesses worse, and lead to such problems as anxiety, depression, isolation, and burnout.

Given all this, how can stress possibly be good for you? Stress researchers like Alia Crum and Kelly McGonigal at Stanford University have been examining stress and the mindsets associated with it for years. They offer statements and beliefs about stress to their research subjects, similar to those you just read. Then they test their subjects on several measures, such as how well the individuals manage their stress, how high their well-being levels are, physiological indicators like levels of stress hormones in their body, and various measures of life functioning. What they consistently find is that people who believe that stress is helpful are more satisfied in life, less depressed, more productive and happy at work, and have greater confidence that they can cope with life challenges. They find more meaning in the struggles of life (McGonigal 2015).

Shifting your Stress Mindset

Probably very few people view all situations with the "stress is harmful" approach. At the same time, many people could benefit from improving their stress mindset.

Research studies show that stress is most likely to be harmful if, because of stress, you feel inadequate, you feel out of control or a sense of meaninglessness, or you isolate from others (McGonigal 2015). I have framed these three categories as the “three H’s” of stress risk: helplessness, hopelessness, and hiding.

  • When you are overwhelmed with life stress, do you feel helpless, like there’s nothing you can do?
  • Do you feel hopeless—a sense that life will always be difficult for you?
  • Do you want to avoid or hide from stressors by escaping into food, alcohol, work procrastination, neglecting daily chores, isolating from friends, or bottling up feelings?

As a new strategy, why not get help from your most energizing, core qualities that are already within you? Your character strengths!

Manage Hiding

Use your curiosity strength to ask one person in your life one new question. This can spark further curiosity and questioning until suddenly you realize you’re in the midst of a meaningful conversation. And what better place to then talk about your feelings relating to stress?

Manage Hopelessness

Turn to your signature strengths. When we feel hopeless, we forget about our core strengths. We forget that our strengths can keep us afloat. Use one of your top strengths today. And another one tomorrow. If you’re high in appreciation of beauty, take the long way home from work and drive along the countryside with your window down, savoring the fresh air and the beauty of the landscape.

Manage Helplessness

Turn to your strengths of perseverance, prudence, or leadership and do one thing to help you feel in control. One thing right now. Your leadership strength can empower you to take charge to lead yourself away from thoughts of destructive helplessness toward empowerment, your prudence can help you mentally plan one thing to do, and your perseverance can help you take that action and complete that one task however small. Completing that one thing, by using your inner strengths, can create a positive ripple toward greater control.

Final Thought

You might be skeptical about some of this. Have the people who find stress helpful simply experienced less stress in their lives? Nope. Researchers have examined that possibility and found that people with both mindsets experience suffering and stress equally. In other words, stress is a ubiquitous part of life that cannot be omitted for anyone. We all have stress, but we don’t all have the same mindset about it.

References:

Niemiec, R. M. (2019). The strengths-based workbook for stress relief. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

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