As it turns out, your mindset about stress may be the most important predictor of how it affects you. As Crum, Salovey and Achor discovered, people have different beliefs about stress. Some people — arguably most people — believe that stress is a bad thing. They agreed with statements like "The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided," and the researchers called this the stress-is-debilitating mindset. Those who instead agreed that "Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth" had what they called a stress-is-enhancing mindset.
In their studies, Crum and colleagues began by identifying stress mindsets among a group of nearly 400 employees of an international financial institution. They found that those employees who had stress-is-enhancing mindsets (compared to stress-is-debilitating ones) reported having better health, greater life satisfaction and superior work performance.
That's already rather amazing, but here's the best part — your mindset can also change! If you have been living with a stress-is-debilitating mindset (like most of us), you don't have to be stuck with it. A subset of the 400 employees in the aforementioned study were shown a series of three-minute videos over the course of the following week, illustrating either the enhancing or debilitating effects of stress on health, performance and personal growth. Those in the stress-is-enhancing viewing group (i.e., the lucky ones) reported significant increases in both well-being and work performance.
Yet another study showed that stress-is-enhancing believers were more likely to use productive strategies, like seeking out feedback on a stress-inducing task. They were also more likely to show "optimal" levels of cortisol activity. (It turns out that both too much and too little cortisol release in response to a stressor can have negative physiological consequences. But with the stress-is-enhancing mindset, cortisol release is just right.)
Taken together, all this research paints a very clear picture: Stress is killing you because you believe that it is. Of course, that doesn't mean you aren't juggling too many projects at once — each of us has limited time and energy, and people can and do get overworked.
But if you can come to see the difficulties and challenges you face as opportunities to learn and grow rather than as your "daily grind," then you really can be happier, healthier and more effective.
Maybe you don't need less stress — you just need to think about your stress a little differently.
Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. is associate director for the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School and author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently and Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World to Power Influence and Success.