An abundance of literature has pointed toward a clear link between stress and performance. This association is critical for understanding the contextually-dependent nature of testing, diagnosis, and assessment, which can be influenced by such intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Research in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) suggests that cognitive reappraisal, or the ability to change one’s thoughts in the presence of emotionally-charged stimuli, can improve responses to stressful situations such as test-taking. However, this body of work does not adequately address the role of stress mindset, or how one views the nature of stress itself and whether thoughts need to be changed in the first place.   

Tero Vesalainen/Pixabay
Source: Tero Vesalainen/Pixabay

A recent study (Crum, Akinola, Martin, & Fath, 2017) suggests that one’s overall mindset about the nature of stress is related to differential patterns of hormone production, emotional experience, attention biases, and cognitive flexibility. The initial findings of the study were published on January 27 in the journal Anxiety, Stress, & Coping.

Stress mindset is the overarching belief that stress is either enhancing or debilitating for cognitive, psychological, affective, and hormonal outcomes. Individuals who hold a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset see daily life stressors as challenges for which they have adequate resources to meet expected demands. Those who hold a “stress-is-debilitating” mindset see stressors as overwhelming events for which they are lacking internal resources to meet external pressures. Specifically, individuals who endorse stress as a challenge, rather than as a problem, on a measure of stress mindset (Crum, Salovey, & Achor, 2013) tend to have better health, greater life satisfaction, lower cortisol reactivity (the “stress” hormone), and are more receptive to performance feedback by others.

In this study, the researchers manipulated individuals’ mindsets about stress by showing 113 participants film clips highlighting either the enhancing or overwhelming nature of stress. Afterward, they exposed participants to a laboratory social stressor (Kirschbaum, Pirke, & Hellhammer, 1993) to measure participants’ mood, cognitive flexibility, attention biases, and hormone levels. Results of the experiment showed that individuals who perceived stress as enhancing had better performance on cognitive tasks, maintained more positive emotions during the stressful task, and had higher levels of the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEAS, the “growth” hormone). Importantly, DHEAS is known for its ability to promote psychological resilience (Charney, 2004) and positive mood (Frye & Lacey, 1999). Those who were placed in the “stress-is-debilitating” film condition showed reduced ability to adapt to stressful tasks, greater attention biases toward negative events, and heightened cortisol production.

Caio Triana/Pixabay
Source: Caio Triana/Pixabay

Taken together, this study underscores the value of modifying one’s mindset rather than modifying specific unhelpful thoughts (a-la CBT). While more work is needed to fully understand the consequences of stress on physiological and psychological health, examining one’s own stress mindset (whether independently or with the help of a mental health professional) may prove to be a worthwhile first step in shedding light on the factors impeding one’s performance, mood, attention, and even hormone levels.

While the study possesses some limitations, including the short-term nature of an acute experimental laboratory stressor in contrast with exposure to a longer term, real-world stressful situation, this new research highlights the benefits of orienting oneself to a growth mindset as it relates to stress as opposed to focusing narrowly on the burdens of stress. How stress is perceived globally is sure to impact assessment results as well and therefore, may need to be measured explicitly prior to engaging in any testing to obtain a sense of how an individual orients himself or herself to such stressful tasks. 

References

Charney, D. S. (2004). Psychobiological mechanisms of resilience and vulnerability: Implications for successful adaption to extreme stress. American Journal of Psychiatry 161(2). Pp. 195-216. 

Crum, A., Akinola, M., Martin, A., & Fath, S. (2017). The Role of Stress Mindset in Shaping Cognitive, Emotional, & Physiological Responses to Challenging & Threatening Stress. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping. 

Crum, A., Salovey, P. & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Frye, C. A., & Lacey, E. H. (1999). The neurosteroids DHEA and DHEAS may influence cognitive performance by altering affective state. Physiology & Behavior 66(1). Pp. 85-92. 

Kirschbaum, C., Pirke, K. M., Hellhammer, D. H. (1993). The "Trier Social Stress Test" - a tool for investigating psychobiological stress responses in a laboratory setting. Neuropsychobiology, 28(1-2), Pp. 76-81. 

About the Author

Sarah-Nicole Bostan, M.A.

Sarah-Nicole Bostan is an adjunct assistant professor of psychology and a Ph.D. candidate in Counseling Psychology at Northeastern University.