The whole “stress-is-debilitating” mindset is definitely a self-fulfilling prophecy: stress reduces performance and adversely impacts health. However, individuals who have a different mindset and choose to view stress as enhancing rather than debilitating, find that stress INCREASES their performance and even improves their health.
How do you Respond to Stress?
Most people believe that if you are stressed, you are less effective and productive. However, a series of studies conducted by a team of researchers led by Yale Ph.D. candidate Alia Crum (now a professor at Stanford) raised a thought provoking question:
What if Stress is Debilitating Simply Because Most of us BELIEVE it is?
In other words, they’re suggesting the way we respond to stress depends on our mindset more than any other contributing factor.
Studies show that if we believe stress is debilitating, we respond poorly to stress, and vice versa; if we believe that stress is enhancing, we respond more positively to it.
Think about your nursing unit/department. We all know that one nurse who seems like he/she can handle any crisis – the one who seems to shine the brightest when things seem their worse (like Stella dumping 18 inches of snow on you!). While other nurses freak out and seem to implode in response to minor stressors.
What if mindset was the key difference?
Research Says: Mindset makes a difference in how we respond to stress!
Hail the power of positive (or negative) thinking!
Nearly 400 employees of a large financial institution participated in the first study, led by Crum. The research explored whether mindset was actually distinct from other variables that influence how we respond to stress, specifically:
- Amount – we respond differently depending on whether we’re dealing with minor stress or major stress
- Ability to Cope -some people respond to stress better than others.
Using a newly developed test for stress mindset (called Stress Mindset Measure or SMM), the study showed little correlation between mindset and the two other variables.
In other words, mindset is not just a redundant stress response factor that reflects the amount of stress or the ability to cope; it’s a distinct variable that impacts how we respond to stress.
Research Says: Stress Can be used as a Motivator and Energy boost!
Even more interesting, the first study also showed a correlation between mindset and response. For example, participants who endorsed a stress-is-enhancing mindset reported less depression and anxiety and more energy in response to stress than those who endorsed a stress-is-debilitating mindset.
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Research Says: We Can Change Our Stress Mindset!
The second study explored whether it’s possible to change people’s stress mindset. Participants watched one of two series of videos — one series of videos emphasizing the benefits of stress, one series of videos emphasizing the harm of stress. A few days later, they took the SMM test, as well as tests measuring work performance and feelings of anxiety or depression.
The results showed that the stress mindset could be primed: watching stress-is-debilitating videos led to stress-is-debilitating mindsets in participants, and vice-versa. The study also repeated the correlation observed in study 1: participants with a stress-is-enhancing mindset reported better work performance and less psychological symptoms than participants with a stress-is-debilitating mindset.
One of my own personal strategies to keep “debilitating stress” in check is to watch inspiring videos in the morning while I’m getting ready. These positive messages help me start my day with a positive “can do” mindset no matter what I’m facing. I notice a big difference when I’m too rushed and don’t start my day with positive messages.
Leadership Challenge: Emphasize the Positive in Stressful Situations
Managers especially must emphasize the benefits of stress when, for example, setting deadlines or stretch goals. Negatively positioning the stress — e.g. “if you miss this deadline, there will be consequences” — will be counterproductive.
Instead, approach the stressful situation positively (e.g. “We’ve been in this situation before, and have had some of our greatest successes under tight deadlines”).
Key Take Away? Mindset Makes a Difference!
Yes, stress can be debilitating, as many assume, but it can also enhance work performance and even lead to physiological changes that enable a more positive response!
As a result, managing stress, either for ourselves or for our clinical team, is no longer just a question of reducing stress. In fact, stress can be helpful in the workplace!
The key is for leaders to recognize the importance of mindset and help their employees to do the same.
Thanks so much for reading. Take care. Be kind and stay connected.
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Dr. Renee Thompson works with healthcare organizations that want to overcome the leadership and clinical challenges their people face every day.
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