The Stress Mindset - Shifting Stress From Bad To Good:

There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has added to national (and international) stress levels. There's been the financial stress of businesses being closed down, jobs being lost and people waiting for Government support (if they qualify for something). The closing of schools led to many of us parents trying to work out some sort of home schooling routine, and in some subjects (like secondary school maths!) trying to even work out what the kids were being asked to work out. There has been stress from the uncertainty of not knowing what is going to happen, or when. And many have been struggling with not being able to see friends and family, or to go out much, or for those shielding themselves not going out at all.

From lockdown to now, some seven or so weeks into it, there has been stress, worry and anxiety. This has been captured in survey data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) which showed that over 80% of people in the UK are worried about the effect that covid-19 is having on their life and with around half of adults reported high levels of anxiety and stress.

And now with the conversation shifting towards easing the lockdown, many posts from people online reflect that this stress has now shifted to what the 'new normal' of life may be like as we start having more freedom and less restriction.

Yet whilst stress is generally considered to be something bad and unwanted, experiencing stressful events is unavoidable (like this pandemic), so can stress ever be shifted into something more positive and constructive that actually benefits us?

Risk Perceptions of Covid-19

Alongside anecdotal experiences, media coverage and the ONS survey results, we also have a very recent research publication that has looked at risk perceptions of Covid-19 across the world. Naturally, there is a strong link between levels of concern about covid-19 and stress levels. 

Dryhurst el al (Risk perceptions of COVID-19 around the world, 2020) carried out an assessment of public risk perception of COVID-19 around the world using national samples in ten countries across Europe, America, and Asia. They found that although levels of concern are relatively high, they are highest in the UK compared to all other sampled countries.

"Policy-makers often conceptualize risk as the probability of catching a disease multiplied by the magnitude of the consequences. Yet, our findings—which present the first comparative evidence of how people perceive the risk of COVID-19 around the world—clearly illustrate that risk perceptions of COVID-19 consistently correlate strongly with a number of experiential and socio-cultural factors across countries.

Many factors can contribute to the level of concern someone has and perhaps unsurprisingly, experience with the virus stood out across all countries, such that people who have had personal and direct experience perceive significantly higher risk.

Now in one way this can be helpful during a pandemic in that, as this study showed, risk perception correlated significantly with reported adoption of preventative health behaviours in all ten countries. The higher the perceived risk, the more likely you are to take action like social distancing and hand washing.

However, it could also lead to increased levels of perceived stress, worry, concern and fear if you think there is a high risk of catching the disease and, perhaps, if you then start to think what the consequences of that might be on your health and finances and on the people around you.

Now, of course, individual perceptions of stress, and the factors involved, will vary from person to person. 

And in the same way that it is impossible to avoid stress completely during a pandemic, we also experience stress in more ordinary circumstances. We generally consider most stress to be something bad (although some might suggest they work better under stressful conditions) so how what can we do to make our response to stressful events in our lives more constructive?

Your Stress Mindset 

As Van Bavel et al (Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response, 2020) write,

"In the face of a global pandemic, avoiding stress altogether is simply not an option. Fortuitously, the past twenty years of research on coping and stress suggest that it’s not the type or amount of stress that determines its impact. Rather, mind-sets and situation appraisals about stress can alter its impact. For instance, some research finds these mind-sets can increase the possibility of ‘stress-related growth’, a phenomenon in which stressful experiences serve to increase physiological toughening, help reorganize our priorities and can help lead to deeper relationships and a greater appreciation for life.

So whilst stress is often associated with feeling bad and with negative consequences, there is scope for turning any perceived stress into something that helps you perform stronger, focus on what is important and appreciate things more.

Two of the most stressful events I have encountered were when my daughter was admitted to hospital at just one week old and when my father died after his battle with cancer. These sorts of events definitely make you appreciate the important people and things that you value even more greatly, and highlight that things that I may have been treating as big things, in comparison, were just small things after all.

It's terms of the covid-19 pandemic where many people have been talking about changes they plan to keep going with even after lock down, like making more use of technology to keep in touch with people, continuing with new skills they have learnt, working from home more and commuting less and spending more time having fun with the kids. I think many people have realised there were things they used to do that were unnecessary or added little positivity to their lives and that they can now amend, change or drop.

your stress mindset hypnotherapy in ely 

Yet stress can be all consuming and debilitating. It can impact on your health and well-being and can contribute to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. It can stop you thinking clearly, lead to procrastination and mean you don't get things done. 

In the context of managing your stress, research suggests that your mindset matters, regardless of the amount and severity of the stress you are experiencing.

Research by Crum et al (Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response, 2013) has suggested that your stress mindset may be important in determining your physiological symptoms and performance in the midst of stress. Rather than having the mindset that stress is debilitating and negative, there can be benefits to holding a belief that stress has enhancing consequences for things like performance and productivity, health and well-being and learning and growth.

Their research demonstrated that "the mindset may also matter in the domain of stress. Stress is portrayed in a negative light in the news, the popular press, and the workplace. The intention of these depictions is to help prevent or stem the negative effects of stress: however, if the self-fulfilling nature of mindset exists, the result of such prophesy may be counter-effective. Repetitive portrayals of stress in a negative light not only increase the possibility that we form the mindset that stress-is-debilitating but may also make it more likely that stress will trigger an automatic response that can result in harmful consequences."

Rather than stress being negative and debilitating, stress can instead lead to "stress-related growth, in which stressful experiences fundamentally change individuals for the better: The experience of stress can enhance the development of mental toughness, heightened awareness, new perspectives, a sense of mastery, strengthened priorities, deeper relationships, greater appreciation for life, and an increased sense of meaningfulness." 

Not all stress can be avoided or reduced and so, their research suggests, your mindset towards the nature of stress can affect your experience and the outcomes you achieve. So as well as any strategies for coping and reducing your stress, you can also change how you perceive stress itself which can lead to you taking positive action, getting mentally stronger, improved health and work performance and experiencing less physical symptoms of stress.

It's not always the thing itself, often it can be how you think about the thing that determines your experience.

Stress Mindset - How You Experience Stress

Further support for a more positive conceptualisation comes from Jamieson et al ( Optimizing stress responses with reappraisal and mindset interventions: An integrated model, 2018) who discusses stress mindsets as being about how one perceives the experience of stress. That is, whether stress is beleived to have enhancing or debilitating consequences. 

"A “stress-is-enhancing mindset” refers to the tendency to believe that stress has enhancing effects of performance, health, and wellbeing, whereas a “stress-is-debilitating mindset” refers to the tendency to believe that stress has debilitating effects on performance, health, and wellbeing. Although the true nature of stress is complex and has the potential to have either or both enhancing and debilitating effects, stress mindsets serve as simplifying systems which orient individuals to a corresponding set of expectations and motivations that are useful for increasing the likelihood that an individual will experience the enhancing effects of stress."

Rather than attempting to reduce or avoid the causes of your stress (which may or may not even be possible), or assuming that stress necessarily has negative consequences, stressful experiences can lead to physiological and psychological thriving in some instances. Stressors, in their view, become opportunities for personal growth.

Thus with the current pandemic, which cannot be wholly avoided, any stress you are experiencing could be considered an opportunity for growth and thriving, perhaps by making changes and adjustments to your lifestyle that benefit you. Many people online have commented on how, in coping with the current stress, things like online working, online social connecting, getting stuff done and exercise have allowed them to not only deal with the stress but also grow and improve some areas of their lives.

Rather than treating stress as a threat that you can't cope with and so need to avoid, you can start to consider some stressors as challenges that helps you with performance, motivation and developing coping skills. Something like the current covid-19 pandemic can become a circumstance to re-prioritise what's important to you and to make active changes to lifestyle and behaviour that you continue ass lockdown is relaxed.

The same is true for other stressors, for example, an  exam, can be considered stressful yet if you prepare well you can feel ready for it and it becomes something that helps you to grow and develop.

As Jamieson et al comment, avoiding or minimising stress can lead you to miss opportunities to advance your goals. "That is, stress frequently emerges when people are pursuing goals that are important to them."

And Crum et al (Optimizing stress: An integrated intervention for regulating stress responses, 2020), discusses how studies have linked stress with personal initiative and productivity, and how even high-intensity stress experiences triggered by life-threatening events can sometimes have positive outcomes, including improved relationships, greater appreciation for life, and enhanced perceptions of strength (post-traumatic growth).

There is a general association of stress with 'distress' and negative emotions that you consider exceed your ability to cope. However, this can take away the possiblity of potentially positive outcomes from stressful situations. It also 

A mindset that 'stress is bad,' "assumes that experiences of stress and the negative effects of stress necessarily co-occur, suggesting that the only way to remove the negative effects is to avoid or reduce the stressful experience. However, some of our most treasured and meaningful experiences involve stress, be it excelling in one’s career, maintaining deep relationships,or raising children. Indeed,when people are invited to reflect on the times in their lives when they have learned, grown substantially, or performed at exceptionally high levels, they often report those times having been deeply stressful."

Such a mindset can also remove the stress that people sometimes experience about the negative effects of stress (getting stressed about being stressed) which can exacerbate feelings of discomfort. 

And so it may well be that, although you can't avoid all stress during a pandemic, your mindset towards that stress will determine whether the stress becomes debilitating or whether it leads to growth. There may be some things you can take action on to reduce your stress levels during this covid-19 pandemic, however, for those aspects that you can't change there are benefits to harnessing the stress for positive gain.

Stay safe and healthy,

Dan Regan

Hypnotherapy in Ely & Newmarket

 

References:

Crum, A.J., Jamieson, J.P. and Akinola, M., 2020. Optimizing stress: An integrated intervention for regulating stress responses. Emotion, 20(1), p.120.

Crum, A.J., Salovey, P. and Achor, S., 2013. Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of personality and social psychology, 104(4), p.716.

Dryhurst, S., Schneider, C., Kerr, J., Freeman, A., Recchia, G., Van Der Bles, A.M., Spiegelhalter, D. and van der Linden, S., 2020. Risk perceptions of COVID-19 around the world.

Jamieson, J.P., Crum, A.J., Goyer, J.P., Marotta, M.E. and Akinola, M., 2018. Optimizing stress responses with reappraisal and mindset interventions: An integrated model. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 31(3), pp.245-261.

Office For National Statistics, Opinions and Lifestyle Survey. https://www.ons.gov.uk/

Van Bavel, J.J., Boggio, P., Capraro, V., Cichocka, A., Cikara, M., Crockett, M., Crum, A., Douglas, K., Druckman, J., Drury, J. and Ellemers, N., 2020. Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response.