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Our Mindset can turn Stress into Strength

How do you respond to stress? The common wisdom is that stress is debilitating — that is, if you are stressed, you are less effective and productive. However, a series of three studies conducted by a team of researchers led by Yale Ph.D. candidate Alia Crum (now a professor at Stanford) and including current Yale President Peter Salovey, raised a provocative question: What if stress is debilitating because most of us believe that stress is debilitating? In other words, the researchers were suggesting that how we respond to stress — by being more or less effective and productive — depends on our mindset. If we believe stress is debilitating, the researchers argued, we respond poorly to stress. If, on the other hand, we believe that stress is enhancing, we respond more positively to stress. A ‘positive’ response would include, for example, using stress as a motivator and energy boost.

The results of the three studies are unequivocal: mindset makes a difference in how we respond to stress.

For example, in one of these studies, nearly 400 employees of a large financial institution participated in the first study, which explored whether mindset was actually distinct from the 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) and the 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.

Mindset makes a difference. 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 employees, is no longer just a question of reducing stress. In fact, in the workplace, stress can be helpful. The challenge is to ensure that we or our employees have the right mindset to be able to use stress as a positive influence on our work.