The perception of stress is that all stress is negative and something to be avoided. The definition of mindset in the American Heritage Dictionary is: “a fixed mental attitude that predetermines a person’s responses to and interpretations of situations.” Carol Dweck’s research has brought attention to the overriding importance of mindsets and has also dispelled the myth that they are immutable. https://gwilliamsfamilyeye.wordpress.com/2015/04/01/mindset-the-new-psychology-of-success/ There is now a substantial body of research – the conclusions of which are counterintuitive – which proves that mindsets can be changed and that these changes can be permanent. It is also clear that stress can be positive. Stress is not all the same and it provides important motivation.
Changing our mindset can make dramatic and lasting changes in our lives. Almost like the magical force in “Star Wars”, in The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal uses research to demonstrate how the forces of mindfulness and mindset can control our responses to anxiety and stress. While everyone has heard of the “fight or flight” response to stress, the “challenge” response and the “tend and befriend” responses are less well known.
To demonstrate that stress is not necessarily bad for us, McGonigal shares the following: “In 1998, thirty thousand adults in the United States were asked how much stress they had experienced in the past year. They were also asked, ‘Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?’ Eight years, later, the researchers scoured public records to find out who among the thirty thousand participants had died. Let me deliver the bad news first. High levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. But – and this is what got my attention – that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.” p. xii
Also, “Those who had a positive view of aging in midlife lived an average of 7.6 years longer than those who had a negative view. To put that number in perspective, consider this: Many things we regard as obvious and important protective factors, such as exercising regularly, not smoking, and maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, have been shown, on average, to add less than four years to one’s life span.” p. xiv
McGonigal goes on to explain that mindsets are core beliefs we have about how the world works. They tend to be invisible, like prejudices. “The mindset doesn’t feel like a choice that we make; it feels like an accurate assessment of how the world works.” p. 32 If we think about mindsets at all, we don’t realize that they are choices we have made and that we can change our choices. “Our physical reality is more subjective than we believe. Perception matters.” P. 4
“People who believe that stress can be helpful are more likely to say that they cope with stress proactively. For example, they are more likely to:
- Accept the fact that the stressful event has occurred and is real.
- Plan a strategy for dealing with the source of stress.
- Seek information, help, or advice.
- Take steps to overcome, remove, or change the source of stress.
- Try to make the best of the situation by viewing it in a more positive way or by using it as an opportunity to grow.
These different ways of dealing with stress lead to very different outcomes. When you face difficulties head-on, instead of trying to avoid or deny them, you build your resources for dealing with stressful experiences. You become more confident in your ability to handle life’s challenges. You create a strong network of social support. Problems that can be managed get taken care of, instead of spiraling out of control. Situations that you can’t control become opportunities to grow. In this way, as with many mindsets, the belief that stress is helpful becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” p. 18
The thinking and life changes that people go through to avoid anxiety and stress have been demonstrated to produce more stress than the situation that they attempt to avoid. Also, “It turns out that a meaningful life is a stressful life.” p. 65 “Feeling burdened rather than uplifted by everyday duties is more a mindset than a measure of what is going on in your life. These are normal and expected parts of life, but we treat them as if they are unreasonable impositions, keeping our lives from how they should really be.” p. 69 Resilience was the theme of a prior blog https://gwilliamsfamilyeye.wordpress.com/2015/01/21/resilience/ which discusses the balance between load and resilience. The research on mindsets supports that changing your mindset decreases your load and increases your resilience. Kelly McGonigal’s favorite description of resilience is from Salvatore Maddi; the courage to grow from stress. p. 94
Anxiety disorders can be crippling. People feel a loss of control. Lives are changed and the disorder can keep people constantly wary and fragile. Medications can help but behavioral interventions have the potential to be more powerful and more lasting. The following is an example of much of what has been discovered that is counterintuitive. “The value of rethinking stress is not limited to people who aren’t really struggling. In fact, embracing the stress response may be even more important for those who suffer from anxiety. Here’s why: Although people who have an anxiety disorder perceive their physiology as out of control, it actually isn’t. In Jamieson’s study, and in many others, people with anxiety self-report higher physical reactivity than those without anxiety. They think their hearts are pounding precariously fast and their adrenaline is surging to dangerous levels. But objectively, their cardiovascular and autonomic responses look just like those of the non-anxious. Everyone experiences an increase in heart rate and adrenaline. People with anxiety disorders perceive those changes differently. They may be more aware of the sensations of their heart beating or the changes in their breathing. And they make more negative assumptions about those sensations, fearing a panic attack. But their physical response is not fundamentally different.” p. 125
As complicated as we are and as complicated as the world is, when we explore a wide range of behavioral problems and health problems, it is remarkable how we keep returning to a common core. We need to understand and take into consideration how our bodies, brains, and perceptions have evolved to produce the potentials that we have including the ability to adapt to the stresses of life. With this great potential we also have constraints. Understanding how our body/brain systems work provides insight into a range of disorders including sensory integration disorders, autism, allergies, auto-immune diseases, cancer, attention deficit disorder, and learning disabilities. Wellness and what fosters wellness is at least as difficult to study as are diseases. The variables are almost countless, but this is now being done and the revelations are astounding and exciting and have the potential to facilitate greater wellness in the future.