While most people believe all stress is bad and will eventually kill them by causing illness or disease, it turns out that how you think about stress - or your stress mindset - greatly influences whether the stress response impacts you positively or negatively. People who reported experiencing large amounts of stress and who perceived that stress negatively affects their health had a 43% increased risk of premature death. People who experience lots of stress but didn’t believe stress is all bad have a much reduced risk of mortality. It is not realistic to suggest that life - at least for most of us - could ever be stress-free. Although many people are convinced that all stress is bad, this is not completely true. Stress can actually be good for you. It begins with how you think about the function of stress in your life.
The human body’s natural stress response is a primitive system in your body that helps keep you safe from threats and danger by signaling you to either stand your ground and fight, or flee to safety. This “fight-or-flight response” is valuable when activated for short periods as your body mobilizes physiological and psychological resources to help you deal effectively with threats. For example, your heart speeds up to pump more blood to your muscles, and your attention narrows so that you can hone in on the threat. Your body mobilizes stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, which help to energize you and dampen fear.
Stress is the enemy mindset
Even though your body’s stress response helps to enhance your natural physical defenses and sharpen your mental state to keep you safe from harm, many people have adopted beliefs that stress is the enemy: Stress is bad for me and I should avoid it at all cost. Stress negatively impacts my health and well-being. Stress makes me weak. You might associate the physical and psychological sensations that come with the stress response as harmful. In some cases, the nervous emotions and physical sensations that come with stress actually become a stressor themselves. If you believe that stress is bad and harmful, you’re more likely to turn inward and isolate yourself, or become avoidant of all challenges, which deprive you of opportunities to learn. This mindset can also impact your physiology. For example, when your heart starts pumping harder, you’re likely to see more constriction and inflammation in the blood vessels.
Stress is an ally mindset
On the flipside, there is another set of beliefs that you can consider adopting that suggest stress can be your ally: Stress is good for me and I should embrace it. Stress has the potential for improving my health and well-being. Stress makes me stronger. Seeing the stress response this way enables you to harness stress and see it as an opportunity to build competence, strengthen social connections, and integrate lessons learned so that you can be better prepared for the future. When your mindset befriends stress, the physiological impact is also different: For example, when your heart starts pumping harder, you’re likely to see relaxation in the blood vessel, less inflammation, and pumping that mimics exercise, which can serve to strengthen and boost cardiovascular health.
How you think about stress - called stress mindset - has been shown to mediate the impact that stress has on your health and well-being. When you can think about stress being your ally rather than your enemy, you can train yourself to experience more of the positive effects of the stress response rather than the negative. Chronic, uncontrollable stress can indeed damage your physical and mental well-being. But for most other kinds of stress, your mindset matters. What’s your mindset?
For more on stress mindset:
McGonigal, K. (2015). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you and how you can get good at it. New York: Penguin Random House.
TED Talk: How to Make Friends with Stress by Kelly McGonigal