Susan Krauss Whitbourne is a professor of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She writes the Fulfilment at Any Age blog for Psychology Today.
You’ve got a hugely pressured day ahead of you, with errands you’ve absolutely got to run along with getting ready for your partner’s upcoming birthday party. All of this has to happen on top of the actual work you need to do at your job. Before leaving the house, you decide to check your email in case your boss has tried to get a hold of you. As you start to log in, the Internet goes down. This is going to delay you by at least half an hour while you try to figure out the cause of the snafu.
In the midst of this turmoil, you might ask yourself how you’re feeling. Is it possible that you actually enjoy all of this stress? Might you really thrive on pressure? It’s automatically assumed that the kind of hassles involved in these daily pressures and mishaps are harmful and cause wear and tear on your mind and body. However, for some people, stress is the fuel that keeps them going, and without it, they are miserable.
The concept of a “stress mindset” helps to explain these alternative ways of approaching life’s pressures. Tel Aviv University’s Nili Ben-Avi and colleagues (2018) recently investigated the stress mindset, which they define as “the extent to which individuals hold the mindset that stress has enhancing versus debilitating consequences.” Since it’s impossible to avoid stress, it would seem more adaptive to take the stress-as-enhancing mindset, unless of course your life is extremely boring and uneventful. It seems safe to assume that most people are in fact under more rather than less pressure, and therefore the stress-as-enhancing mindset would seem to be the better approach if your goal is to be able to overcome the left curves that life can send your way.
The Israeli researchers took the unique approach of asking people not to rate their own stress mindset and then observe their levels of negative outcomes, but to use ratings of stress mindset as predictors of outcomes among other individuals. The idea behind the study was that your stress mindset will affect how much strain and unhappiness someone else is experiencing. Consider, for example, whether you think stress is debilitating. You would then think your partner shares your views about stress and would, therefore, be as unhappy as you would be under that same stress level.
To measure your own stress mindset, rate yourself from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) on the following eight stress mindset items:
- The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided.
- Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth.
- Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality.
- Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity.
- Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth.
- Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality.
- Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity.
- The effects of stress are positive and should be utilized.
- A stress-enhancing mindset is indicated by your agreement with items 2, 4, 6, and 8.
- If you agree with items 1,3,5, and 7, you hold a stress-debilitating mindset.
The average participant in the Ben-Avi et al. study received an average at about the middle of the 7-item scale (3.22 per item), and most people scored just between about 2 and 4. If you have a stress-enhancing mindset, you should, therefore, score at 4 or above per item on the even-numbered items, and 2 or below on the odd-numbered items.
Participants also rated their levels of optimism and their mood. To measure optimism, the Tel Aviv University researchers used a standard optimism scale containing the following items:
- In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.
- I'm always optimistic about my future.
- Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad.
The mood scale simply asked participants to rate their levels of happiness on a straightforward 9-point rating scale.
Turning now to the outcome of having a stress-enhancing mindset, the findings clearly support the idea that your life will be better if you can put a positive spin on having a life that’s full of pressure. Although mood wasn’t related to stress mindset, optimism levels did show a positive correlation, with people who have more of a “can-do” spirit enjoying a life full of constant demands.
As it turns out, your stress mindset levels also predict the way you judge other people. The Israeli team asked participants to judge the levels of stress experienced by a male employee (“Ben”) described in a scenario as experiencing a great deal of work-related stress, such as being in a managerial position, working long hours, and having to multi-task. Participants did perceive this male employee as being highly stressed, but people who held a stress-as-enhancing mindset saw him as having a lower workload than did people who believed that stress is debilitating. Furthermore, the more participants believed that stress is enhancing, the lower they rated Ben on the burnout scale.
Thus, having a stress-as-enhancing mindset affects the amount of stress you perceive other people to have. If you think stress is enhancing, you will project this attitude onto the way you perceive other people. These findings suggest that, unfortunately, if you and your partner have a stress-mindset mismatch, you’ll be less understanding toward your partner.
Turning then to the ways that you can use stress to your advantage, look again at those 8 items on the stress mindset scale. If you’ve scored on the “agree” side of those odd-numbered items, maybe it’s time to see where your ideas about stress come from in the first place. Ben-Avi and her collaborators note that the mass media tends to emphasize the harmful and debilitative effects of stress over and beyond any of its benefits. It is true that unabated chronic stress has a negative impact on health and can even shorten your life; however, because stress is also a subjective state, if you could somehow be convinced to turn around your views of stress, you might not be quite so damaged by its presence in your life. People can, the Israeli researchers note, be helped to change their mindset, and in turn, their health and work performance can benefit.
To sum up, assuming that all stress is bad can create its own self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, see stress as the product of your own perceptions, and you may well be on your way to a more positive outlook on life.
Written by Susan Krauss Whitbourne. Republished with permission of Psychology Today.