Can our mindset change the way we experience stress?

1: Imagine a job interview.

An extra stressful job interview where the interviewer barks negative feedback no matter what we say or do.

“Do you think gender inequality in the workplace is still a problem?” The interviewer asks. 

We start to answer, but the interviewer interrupts, “That’s a bad example.  Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Stop uttering ‘uh’ and ‘um,'” the interviewer growls.  “Why aren’t you looking me in the eyes?  Your posture lacks confidence.” 

Does that sound stressful?

Actually, that’s the goal.

2: Scientist Alia Crum runs the Behavioral Research Lab at Columbia University.  Her research focuses on the impact of stress, Kelly McGonigal recounts in her excellent book, The Upside of Stress.

Prior to participating in the mock interview described above, participants are shown one of two videos. 
One half of the group watches a video that begins with an ominous announcement: “Most people know that stress is negative . . . but research shows that stress is even more debilitating than you expect,”  Kelly writes. 

The video then describes how stress can harm your health, happiness, and work performance.

The second video, which the other half of the group watches begins, “Most people think that stress is negative . . . but actually research shows that stress is enhancing,” Kelly writes

The video then describes how stress can improve performance, enhance well-being, and help us grow.

After watching the short videos, the participants take part in the mock interviews described above where they receive unrelenting negative feedback from the trained interviewers.

“The goal of the study is to manipulate participants’ views of stress and then watch how their bodies respond to a stressful situation,” writes Kelly.  

As a participant herself, she notes, “Even though I knew that the whole thing was a carefully scripted experiment designed to throw me off balance, it was still stressful.”

Following the interviews, the scientists then test the participants’ saliva to measure the ratio of two stress hormones: DHEA to cortisol, which is called the “growth index” of a stress response.  We need both hormones, and neither is “good” nor “bad,” Kelly notes.  However, higher levels of cortisol relative to DHEA are associated with worse outcomes, including impaired immune function and depression. 

“A higher growth index—meaning more DHEA—helps people thrive under stress.  It predicts academic persistence and resilience in college students, as well as higher GPAs.  During military survival training, a higher growth index is associated with greater focus, less dissociation, and superior problem-solving skills, as well as fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms afterward,” Kelly notes.  “The growth index even predicts resilience in extreme circumstances, such as recovering from child abuse.”

3: Scientist Alia Crum’s study was testing to see if changing people’s perceptions of stress could modify this measure of resilience.

“Could a three-minute video about stress alter this key ratio of stress hormones?” Kelly writes.

The short answer?  Yes.

The participants who watched the stress-is-enhancing video before the interview released more DHEA and had a higher growth index than the participants who watched the stress-is-debilitating video.

“Viewing stress as enhancing made it so – not in some subjective, self-reported way, but in the ratio of stress hormones produced by the participants’ adrenal glands,” Kelly notes.  “Viewing stress as helpful created a different biological reality.”

How we think about stress impacts how our body reacts to stress.

Mindset matters.  With stress.  As well as with many other aspects of our lives.

More tomorrow.
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Reflection:  What is my mindset about stress?  What are the implications of Alia Crum’s research on me?

Action:  Journal about it.

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