Your stress mindset refers to your current thoughts and beliefs about stress. Is it bad for you? Does it make you freeze? Is it something we should try to minimize? Or is it something that can help us out in tough situations?
Our stress mindset will determine our relationship to it. In other words, it will determine how we react to and treat our stress. This is the direction part of stress.
Most of us grew up learning that stress is something to be avoided and minimized. It is not good for us. In fact, it may even end up killing us!
When we have such a mindset toward stress, what does that cause us to do? Avoid it. Try to minimize it. Escape it somehow.
But think of this: is stress ever really going to go away? Does anybody live a truly stress-free and relaxed life? No. And if somebody says they do, then they probably don’t care about that much, and are living a close to meaningless life (after all, one definition of stress is “what arises when something we care about is at stake.” We only stress about things we care about. If we don’t ever stress, then we probably don’t care about anything).
This mindset may also lead us to do what psychologists call “stress generation,” or what we at Mbody like to call meta-stress. Basically, we end up stressing about stress, which creates more stress.
“The more directly one aims to maximize pleasure and avoid pain, the more likely one is to produce instead a life bereft of depth, meaning, and community.”Richard Ryan, Veronika Huta, & Edward Deci
Kelly McGonigal is an expert on this topic. In her book The Upside of Stress, she argues that stress is not inherently bad for us, and that we can change the way it affects us by the way we view it. From her book:
Feeling burdened rather than uplifted by everyday duties is more a mindset than a measure of what is goin on in your life…. how you think about stress can influence this tendency. When you believe stress is harmful, anything that feels a bit stressful can start to feel like an intrusion in your life… everyday experiences can start to seem like a threat to your health and happiness. You may find yourself complaining about these experiences, as if your life has gone off course and there is some stress-free version of it out there waiting for you.
And that’s the thing: there is no stress-free version of life. Everybody (everybody) feels it, most of us on a more than daily basis.
McGonigal forces us to ask the question of what the cost of avoiding stress is?
- What events, experiences, activities, roles, or other opportunities have you turned down or cut out of your life because you thought they were (or would be) too stressful?
- What activities, substances, or other “escapes” do you turn to when you want to avoid, get rid of, or numb thoughts and feelings related to the stress in your life?
- Is there anything you would like to do, experience, accept, or change, if only you were not afraid of the stress it might bring into your life?
A more facilitative (beneficial) stress mindset would be to embrace our stress and learn to use the energy and focus it gives us to be proactive about the situation, as opposed to using it to manage our stress. This would help us to break the cycle of stress generation (more on how to do that in the next section).
To help us accept, embrace, and utilize our stress, Kelly McGonigal outlines four possible responses to stress, as opposed to just the one we are all familiar with. We can choose which response we will have based on our mindset about the given situation:
How can we elicit each individual response in a stressful situation?
As we can see, stress is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, in many cases, it can be one of our greatest resources for survival, performance, creating a social network, and making progress.
Does this mean that stress is inherently good for us? Well, not necessarily. This doesn’t mean we should go out looking for stress wherever we go. That would be exhausting.
What it does mean is that when we do feel stress in our lives, which is inevitable, we can properly use it to deal with our situation, as opposed to stressing about our stress.
In this way, we can stop being a slave to our stress, and continue to make progress toward the goals we want in life.
Here are some things we can do, as outlined by Kelly McGonigal, to create a healthy stress mindset:
- Develop key traits for a positive stress mindset
- Learn to reframe stress and anxiety using mindful acceptance and commitment
- Learn the process of shifting a mindset