Stress is actually good for you, if…

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You are stressed — by your deadlines, your responsibilities, your ever-increasing workload and your life in general. If you are like me, you even stress about how much stress you're feeling — worrying that it is interfering with your performance and possibly taking years off of your life.

This might sound a little crazy, but what if it's the very fact that we assume stress is bad that's actually making it so bad for us? And what if there were another way to think about stress — a way that might actually make it a force for good in our lives? Well, there is, according to new research from Yale’s Alia Crum and Peter Salovey, along with Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage.

Let's take a step back and begin with a different question: What is stress?

Generally speaking, it's the experience — or anticipation — of difficulty or adversity. We humans, along with other animals, have an instinctive physical response to stressors. It includes activation of the sympathetic nervous system ("fight or flight"), inhibition of the parasympathetic nervous system ("rest and digest") and the release of adrenaline and cortisol. But what does all of that do? In short, it primes the pump — we become more aroused and more focused, more ready to respond physically and mentally to whatever is coming our way.

Kind of sounds like a good thing, doesn't it?

But wait, you say, can't chronic stress make us sick? Can't it take a toll on our immune functioning?

Yes... but there is plenty of evidence that stress can also enhance immunity.

Well, then, you point out, can't it leave us feeling depressed and lethargic?

Yes... but studies show that it can also create mental toughness, increase clarity, result in greater appreciation for one's circumstances and contribute to a sense of confidence built on a history of overcoming of obstacles (which is the best, most long-lasting kind of confidence you can have). So stress is bad, and somehow also good. How can we make sense of the paradoxical nature of stress?

I'll bet right now you are saying to yourself, it's the amount of stress that matters. Low levels may be good, but high levels are still definitely bad. (i.e., What doesn't kill you might make you stronger... but too much stress is probably going kill you.)

The problem with this theory — which was once the dominant theory among psychologists, too — is that by and large, it doesn't appear to be true. The amount of stress you encounter is a surprisingly poor predictor of whether it will leave you worse (or better) off.

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.


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