Stress is an energetic emotional reaction that people have to a problem or threat in their world. A student might experience stress because of an assignment that has not yet been completed. A salesperson might be stressed about a deal they are trying to close. A person who has just moved to a new town might be anxious that they will not make any new friends.
Is this emotional reaction good or bad?
As with every difficult question in psychology, the answer is “it depends.” In this case, it depends on the orientation you take to the emotion. A 2023 paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by several authors including lead author Alia Crum and anchored by Peter Salovey addresses this question in detail.
They point out that there are two distinct mindsets people often adopt related to stress. One is that stress is debilitating. This mindset focuses on the negative aspects of stress and suggests that people focus on calming their stress in difficult situation. The second is that stress is enhancing. This mindset focuses on how stress creates energy that can be used to tackle the issue at hand effectively.
These researchers were interested in two related issues. First, there is some reason to believe that treating stress as a factor that enhances performance will lead to a higher level of long-term effectiveness and well-being than treating stress as a debilitating factor, but more evidence is needed. Second, they were interested in how best to train people to adopt this mindset.
This issue of training is an interesting one. Many researchers have tried to influence the mindsets people adopt in different contexts. For example, a lot of work on growth mindset has tried to affect whether students, teachers, or employees adopt a mindset that they can improve their academic and intellectual performance. Often, these interventions focus primarily on the particular mindset they want people to adopt and the benefits of that mindset.
These researchers suggest that—particularly for stress—there are conflicting messages in the environment. People often hear about the debilitating effects of stress, so just telling people of the benefits of treating stress as enhancing may not have a long-term influence on behavior. So, these researchers were interested in testing the effectiveness of a technique that encourages people to choose this stress-as-enhancing mindset despite messages they may hear to the contrary. The key idea is to teach people to be aware of the mindset they adopt.
Across three studies, the authors compared interventions that taught this proactive approach to choosing a mindset. In these interventions, people were taught about the value of treating stress as enhancing, but were also introduced to information about the mindset that stress is debilitating. The intervention focused on choosing this mindset.
The studies were all done in real-world contexts such as corporate training. Participants were given a pre-test about their mindset related to stress and also work performance, well-being, and health. They also took at least one post-test several weeks after the intervention. The last study also had a post-test done several months after the intervention.
The studies had several interesting results.
First, compared to a control condition in which participants had not yet received any instruction, participants given this mindset intervention were more likely to think of stress as enhancing, and felt healthier. There was some mixed evidence that this manipulation improved performance in some areas of work, but more research will need to be done to better understand those results. There was also a tendency for participants to experience fewer negative emotions following the mindset intervention.
Second, one study also compared the intervention that focused on getting people to choose a mindset that stress is enhancing to one that just focused on introducing the benefits of this mindset without contrasting it with the mindset that stress is debilitating. This study suggests that the intervention that focuses on choosing a mindset was stronger and had a longer-lasting impact than just introducing the mindset that stress is enhancing.
This work suggests that people can choose their reaction to stressful situations. There are times when stress can be overwhelming and finding ways to disengage and calm down can be useful. But, harnessing the energy that comes with stress can also be powerful and can enable people to be successful and to feel better about their work and life. At least for adults who can understand the different orientations they take toward stress and choose the best one for them, this approach can be a powerful way to help people manage stressful environments.
Choosing to treat stress as positive has benefits (no date) Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/ulterior-motives/202308/choosing-to-treat-stress-as-positive-has-benefits (Accessed: 10 September 2023).