Today is National First Responders Day, and to celebrate the occasion, I’d like to help you figure out how to handle stress like a true hero.First Responders face stress daily, and so over time, have learned to view stress as enhancing their capabilities. Most of us, on the other hand, are conditioned to view stress as debilitating. Who’s right? Is stress enhancing or debilitating? Actually, both perceptions can be equally valid, but our attitude towards these intense feelings affects how we navigate stressful events.
Our culture normalizes stress, viewing it as a minor side effect of leading a productive life. But our bodies disagree. Those who are stressed tend to run too high on cortisol, a hormone known to make us feel impatient and irritable. So we look for “treats” to mitigate the negative vibes, and sure enough, given that cortisol also causes high-sugar, high-fat, high-salt food cravings, we can’t resist that bag of chips or that extra sweet coffee in the mid-afternoon. To complete that ugly picture, cortisol is also known to cause insomnia, so we don’t get quite enough sleep, which keeps our cortisol levels high so that we repeat the whole cycle all over again the next day. With poorer sleep, food, and mood behaviors, our cardiovascular and overall health and productivity suffer.
All these negative consequences of stress seem to favor the view that stress is debilitating. But what if we could alter our cortisol response to stress? Turns out, that’s a real possibility.
In a first research experiment, Crum, Salovey and Achor at Yale University discovered that people can perceive stress as either enhancing or as debilitating. They then found in a follow-up study that this perception can be altered based on the information that people receive. Participants were sent three short videos that provided credible information emphasizing either a “stress is enhancing” or “stress is debilitating” mindset. Results showed that participants’ beliefs about stress were altered based on the information they had viewed. In the third and final study of that series, Crum and team found that a stress-is-enhancing mindset is related to more adaptive cortisol responses when under high stress.
These three studies suggest that our stress mindset is malleable and that adopting a stress-is-enhancing mindset can help us handle the pressures that come our way.
I’ve created my own one-minute clip to help you, your peers, clients and loved ones interpret stress more positively, just as first responders do.
Now of course, a caveat: having a positive response to stress is in no way a license to impose further pressure on ourselves and others. It is solely a tool to help us face the music a bit more gracefully. 😉
Crum, A.J., Salovey, P. & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 104 (4), 716–733.
McGonigal, K. (2016). The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. New York: Penguin Random House.
Shaar, M.-J. (2014). Health habits work better together: Evidence from the Trans-theoretical Model. Positive Psychology News.
Shaar, M.-J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.
Worline, M. & Dutton, J. (2017). Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations. San Francisco: Berrett Kohler Publishers.
Fireman operating hose Photo by Greg Leaman on Unsplash