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How we see stress changes how stress affects us

Generally, stress is bad for us. Throughout evolutionary history, stress has always been for short-term situations - we face some danger, our stress levels rise, we fight or run away, our stress lowers. Stress is a short-term boost to increase our arousal and attention, helping us make it through the next few moments.


But we were not designed to handle stress for prolonged periods of time. It causes our cells to die faster, our blood pressure to increase, parts of our brain related to memory and cognition to shrink, and to become edgier and more anxious. It causes about a 30% increase in the risk of premature death. 

Unfortunately, humans have along the way developed a mastery of stressing over many things, over long periods of time. We stress about too little choice, too many choices, our future, our positions relative to others, how others see us, how others will see us in the future... an endless list. 

So this seems pretty bad

But can how we look at stress change the effects it has on us?

Researchers from Yale University aimed to find out. They engaged 388 employees from a large financial institution in 2009 - this was just after the financial crisis had exploded, and these folks were stressed. 

  • All 388 completed a simple baseline questionnaire on stress and well-being

  • 163 participants were randomly picked to be in a "stress-is enhancing" group

  • 164 participants were randomly picked to be in a "stress-is-debilitating" group

  • 61 were placed in a control group.

  • Over the course of one week, participants in the "enhancing" and "debilitating" group were shown 3 videos of about 3 minutes in length. The videos tackled stress in 3 domains: health, learning + growth, and performance. The control condition participants did not view any videos. 

  • You can see an example of how the videos differed between the "enhancing" vs the "debilitating" in the photo slider above (scroll left or right with the arrows)

placebo and stress.png

We can see the results above:

  • It turns out that people are able to change their mindsets quite readily. 

  • Participants in the "stress is enhancing" condition adopted a more positive mindset towards stress, and showed improved psychological readings and work performance.

  • In contrast, participants in the "stress-is-debilitating" condition developed a more negative mindset towards stress and showed a slight decrease in psychological readings and work performance. Why is the magnitude of decrease smaller for "stress-is-debilitating" group? Remember the participants were already a group of highly-stressed individuals, who were working at a financial institution just after a major financial crisis. 

These results suggest that our mindsets on stress can be changed, even if the amount of stress hasn't. Additionally, adopting a more positive view of stress is accompanied by a corresponding positive change in psychological measures and work performance. 

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