Updated: Oct 11
How many times have you sat back after a hectic day, stared at your unfinished to-do list, and thought: “Wow, I’m stressed.”
It’s not a great feeling, right? In those moments, we often feel overwhelmed by life’s challenges. We encounter bona fide physical reactions. Hearts race. Muscles tense. Anxieties peak. The list goes on.
No one enjoys that feeling. After all, the general consensus is that stress isn’t healthy. According to the World Health Organization, stress is the health epidemic of the 21st century. When left unmanaged, it’s been linked to depression, heart disease, diabetes, infertility, you name it.
But what if I told you that research shows you can use stress to improve your health and performance?
That’s exactly what Professor Alia Crum at Stanford University, who recently joined Pardigm.com’s Scientific Advisory Board, is arguing. And with her groundbreaking work at the Stanford Mind and Body Lab, she’s formulated three steps to help make stress work for you.
Time to Change Your Beliefs About Stress
The term “stress” is drowning in negative connotations. Simply telling someone you’re stressed implies you’re having a pretty bad day.
But here’s the thing many forget: Stress is intended to be a survival tool.
When an event happens that challenges you — be it physically or psychologically — your sympathetic nervous system gets triggered. It essentially flips your body’s natural alarm system, aka the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response, into “on” mode. This signals your adrenal glands to flood more cortisol (the stress hormone) into your bloodstream.
In short bursts, this is incredibly useful. Cortisol can raise your blood sugar, giving you a boost of energy to handle a stressor. It can help you focus, react and even cement memories.
However, many people’s alarm systems are stuck in “on” mode. After all, stressors today are tough to fend off. We’re not fighting tigers. We’re fighting a pandemic, financial worries, career challenges and more. When these concerns reach chronic stress levels, it can cause cortisol imbalances … and suddenly, a system meant to protect us can cause damage instead. Cue stress-related health issues.
Those health risks are a valid concern. It’s why we at Pardigm.com believe in testing and managing cortisol levels.
But part of managing cortisol levels includes lifestyle changes. And perhaps the biggest lifestyle change you can make comes down to your mindset. As Professor Alia Crum lays out: “Over a decade of research suggests that it’s not the type or amount of stress that determines its impact. Instead, it’s our mindset about stress that matters.”
In one study of 30,000 Americans, those with the highest levels of stress were 43% more likely to die only if they also believed that stress was bad for their health. On the other hand, those experiencing high stress who didn’t view it as harmful were the least likely to die compared to others in the study. And yes, that even includes people who experienced little stress.
It may sound like magical thinking. How can our thoughts impact our physiology? But just look at the placebo effect, which shows a person’s health can improve after taking an inactive treatment. There’s more evidence on the placebo effect than any other medicine out there since new drugs must outperform placebos in clinical trials before going to market.
Mindsets matter. And if we view stress as a tool to help us overcome challenges and achieve desired outcomes — as it is intended — then we can help influence some of stress’ impacts on our health and performance.
Essentially, it comes down to shifting from the view that stressors are debilitating to the view that they can enhance our lives. That they are challenges that can expand our knowledge, sharpen our thinking, deepen our relationships, improve our performance and more.
Alia calls this the “stress is enhancing” mindset. Or the SIE mindset. And research shows it can have real results.
In one of Alia’s studies, they tested employees working in the financial sector during the height of the 2008 financial crisis. They gave them a three-step guide to adopting a “stress is enhancing” mindset. After one month of learning this technique, employees showed fewer negative health symptoms and increased work performance. And the amount of stress wasn’t altered.
In another example, Alia has seen this mindset benefit Navy SEALs. When studying recruits, she noted that they, on average, had a stress-is-enhancing mindset. Not many recruits make it through the rigors of basic training to complete the program: only about 10% to 20%. Alia’s team found that those with an SIE mindset were more likely to finish training, had faster obstacle times and were even rated more positively by their peers.
To top it off, a mindset shift can potentially change your physiology. A few studies show that people who are inspired to adopt SIE mindsets have more moderate cortisol responses.
3 Steps for Using Stress to Perform Better
Changing your mindset won’t happen overnight. Mindsets are core beliefs that have been shaped by four key areas: your upbringing, your environment (such as culture and media), your influencers (friends, peers, officials) and your conscious choice. But as you saw from Alia’s study during the financial crisis, with the right tools, you can start to shift your mindset and see results.
After working with students, business leaders and Navy SEALs, Alia’s team has crafted three steps to tap into stress’ benefits while minimizing its negative outcomes. (They also offer an open-access tool kit to help get you started.)
Step 1: Acknowledge Your Stress
To make stress work for you, you have to first acknowledge the stress. By consciously naming it, you move neural activity from the amygdala — the fear center of the brain — to the prefrontal cortex, which manages higher-level decision making.
This allows you to move from a reactive mindframe to a thoughtful one in which you’re in more control.
Accepting your stress also helps you beat something called “ironic mental processing.” When you attempt to suppress a thought, your brain constantly checks in to see if you’re, in fact, thinking of that idea. This check-in, of course, makes you focus on the topic, however briefly. As a result, you end up using vast amounts of mental energy trying to ignore something.
Another big benefit from this step is that you take time to delve into the main reason behind your anxiety. Sometimes it’s not as clear as it first looks. For example, are you worried about a miscommunication at work, or are you worried about your job safety?
It’s beneficial to figure out your specific stressors and then to examine your specific reactions, including your emotional responses, physical symptoms and even any changes in habits.
Step 2: Welcome Your Stress
It sounds odd. Why would you welcome stress, especially when it’s linked to so many health concerns? Here’s the thing: We only stress about things that we care about. Welcoming stress gives us a chance to reconnect to the things that motivate us in life — to the things we hold dear to our hearts. If we run away from our stressors, we may end up disconnecting from the things we value.
So, in order to reconnect with the values behind your stressors, Alia suggests completing this sentence: “I’m stressed about [insert stressor] because I deeply care about…”
Step 3: Use Your Stress
Now that you’ve determined your stressor and its connection to your values, it’s time to utilize your stress response to achieve the thing you care about.
Alia recommends asking yourself this: Are your stress responses in alignment with the values behind your stress? Think about how you might change your response to the stressor to better reach your goals.
Remember, stress is a survival tool. It can help you focus, give you energy, even process information faster. It’s in your control to leverage that tool for your own means.
In the end, Alia’s takeaway is this: “Many people assume that stress is harmful and that they should avoid it. What people don’t realize is that the way we respond to stress is just as important to performance as the stressor itself. We can actually leverage stress for better performance in day-to-day life.
“Having an SIE mindset doesn't mean that the stressor is a good thing or that you should enjoy being stressed. Rather, it’s the mindset that the experience of stress can lead to enhancing outcomes..."
With that in mind, we’re excited to have Alia join the Pardigm.com Scientific Advisory Board, and we’ll continue to keep you in the loop on the latest science behind stress.
Before you go, we have one more question for you: How can we get better? Here at Pardigm.com, our goal is to gather the best information to help you understand the science of stress. If you think we missed anything in our research, please let us know here.