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3 Counterintuitive Benefits of a Stress-Is-Enhancing Mindset

Reframing distress as eustress reduces cortisol and fight-or-flight responses.

Yesterday at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association (APA 2019) in Chicago, Lisa Damour—who is the author of Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls and a private-practice psychologist who writes a regular column for the New York Times—presented a lecture about why short-term stress and anxiety aren't always bad.

Luis Louro/Shutterstock
Source: Luis Louro/Shutterstock

Damour's lecture, "At Ease: Reframing Stress and Anxiety," advances the hypothesis that expecting to always feel stress-free and relaxed is a recipe for disappointment.

"Many Americans now feel stressed about being stressed and anxious about being anxious. Unfortunately, by the time someone reaches out to a professional for help, stress and anxiety have already built to unhealthy levels," Damour said in a news release. "It's important for psychologists to share our knowledge about stress with broad audiences: that stress is a given in daily life, that working at the edge of our abilities often builds those capacities and that moderate levels of stress can have an inoculating function, which leads to higher than average resilience when we are faced with new difficulties."

Damour points out that stress usually occurs when someone is forced to operate at the edge of his or her abilities or is pushed into circumstances that stretch beyond an individual's comfort zone.

That said, stress responses can be triggered by both positive and negative life events and circumstances. Damour gives the example of bringing home a baby for the first time and being fired from a job both triggering stress, but in different ways.

What is eustress? The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes eustress as "a positive form of stress having a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being."

In The Athlete's Way, I make a binary distinction between two types of stress based on terminology coined by legendary endocrinologist Hans Selye (1907-1982), who is considered "the stress theory" founder by many. Selye called positive stress "eustress" and negative stress "distress." Of note, eustress is not used to define a specific stressor type. Instead, the concept of "good stress" is more a reflection of someone framing stress-inducing events as "challenging" as opposed to "threatening."

Damour encourages psychologists to take an active role in counter-messaging what she calls "the happiness industry," which consists of health and wellness companies (or bloggers, like me) who often promote the idea that people should feel calm and relaxed every second of every day. "We want to support well-being, but don't set the bar at being happy nearly all of the time. That is a dangerous idea because it is unnecessary and unachievable," she said. "If you are under the impression that you should always be joyful, your day-to-day experience may ultimately turn out to be pretty miserable."

As opposed to short-term bouts of distress, chronic stress is an entirely different beast that can take a devastating toll on psychological well-being, cause damage to the brain, and is linked to cardiovascular disease. Damour says, "Anyone feeling overwhelmed by stress should, if possible, take measures to reduce his or her stress and/or seek help from a trained professional to learn stress management strategies." I agree.

What Are Three Benefits of Adopting a Stress-Is-Enhancing Mindset?

Coincidentally, a new study (Hogue, 2019) was published yesterday that highlights some specific benefits of adopting a "stress-is-enhancing" mindset. In my opinion, this research dovetails seamlessly with the lecture Lisa Damour presented yesterday at APA 2019. This paper, "The Protective Impact of a Mental Skills Training Session and Motivational Priming on Participants' Psychophysiological Responses to Performance Stress," was published online August 10 in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

The author of this paper, Candace Hogue, is an assistant professor of kinesiology in the School of Behavioral Sciences and Education at Penn State. Hogue's bio states, "I am interested in using sport/physical activity settings as a means to help teach positive life skills to youth and to foster a continued interest in physical activity in order to help optimize the health and well-being of participants of all skill levels."

For her recent investigation into stress-is-enhancing mindsets, Hogue examined whether a motivational priming session in the form of an achievement goal perspective theory (AGPT) lecture and mental skills training (MST) could elicit a protective physiological response to performance-induced stress. These lectures and training aimed to foster a stress-is-enhancing mindset along with a more task-oriented approach toward achievement.

The results showed that AGPT-based mental skills training sessions—in which someone is taught to reframe distress as eustress by adopting a "stress-is-enhancing" mindset—elicited a protective psychophysiological response to stress.

Being coached on how to adopt a "stress-is-enhancing" mindset 15  minutes before performing a stressful task appeared to yield three beneficial responses:

  1. The AGPT lecture was associated with lower levels of salivary cortisol (which is a stress hormone) when study participants were exposed to a performance stressor.
  2. In comparison to a control group, those who were coached in a "stress-is-enhancing" approach displayed a significant spike in DHEA, which is a neurosteroid that counters many adverse effects associated with cortisol.
  3. AGPT-based MST sessions fortified a challenge (not threat) appraisal of performance stress.

According to Candace Hogue, this is the first study linking AGPT-based MST to a stress-protective neurosteroid (DHEA).

Taken together, the latest research suggests that we can better protect ourselves against psychophysiological stress responses in ego-involving performance settings by shifting mindset.

Most of us tend to feel like we have very little control in stressful situations. However, by reframing stress as something that isn't always bad and adopting a "stress-is-enhancing" mindset, it appears that stressful experiences are more likely to be viewed as doable challenges, not scary threats.

 Courtesy of Kiehl's Since 1851
Christopher Bergland was able to run 135-miles nonstop through Death Valley in July at the Badwater Ultramarathon by adopting a stress-is-enhancing mindset and reciting "Bring it on! I got this" like a mantra.
Source: Courtesy of Kiehl's Since 1851

Blogger's note: Anecdotally, I can corroborate that adopting a "stress-is-enhancing" mindset reduces performance anxiety. As an ultra-endurance Guinness-world-record athlete, I spent decades figuring out how to "flip the script" and view threatening athletic challenges with a "Bring it on! I got this." mindset through trial and error. For example, even when I felt crippling anxiety at the starting line of a race like Badwater, where ultramarathoners run 135-miles nonstop through Death Valley in July—by reframing the "threat" of extreme conditions as a life-affirming "challenge" and adopting a "stress-is-enhancing" mindset—I was able to "fake it till I made it" to the finish line.

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Candace M. Hogue "The Protective Impact of a Mental Skills Training Session and Motivational Priming on Participants' Psychophysiological Responses to Performance Stress." Psychology of Sport and Exercise (First published online: August 10, 2019) DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2019.101574