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To Work Better, Rethink Stress

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Woman speaks to a room of people


People stress out about stress. 


Thinking about the benefits of stress can improve your response to stress.


Many people assume that stress is harmful and to be avoided. Psychologist Alia Crum and colleagues wanted to know whether the way people think about stress— their stress mindset— affects the way they handle it.

Over the course of a week, the researchers randomly assigned employees at a financial institution to one of three groups. In the stress-is-debilitating group, 164 employees watched videos that portrayed stress as harmful, causing illness and mistakes at work. In the stress-is-enhancing group, 163 people watched videos that portrayed stress as useful, improving immunity, creativity, and work quality under pressure. In the control group, 61 people did not watch any videos.

After a week, the researchers discovered that people who had watched the stress-is-enhancing videos believed that stress has more positive effects. In contrast, people who had watched the stress-is-debilitating videos thought stress has more harmful effects.

In a second study, the researchers showed that people with a stress-is-enhancing mindset actually responded better to stress. During a public speaking task, people with these mindsets had more adaptive physiological responses than did people with the stress-is-debilitating mindset, as indicated by the stress hormone cortisol. People with the stress-is-enhancing mindset were also more open to feedback— a necessary step toward improving. 

Why This Works

What we believe will happen can have surprisingly strong effects on what does happen. Our mindsets shape what we attend to, how we interpret events, and how we react, all of which can change how our bodies respond to situations. 

When This Works Best

This intervention works best for people who worry that stress is harmful. For these people, reframing stress as beneficial can have the biggest impact on how they handle stress.

The Original Study

Crum, A. J., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,104(4), 716-733.

Measure your own stress mindset.

Learn more about stress mindset interventions. 

In The Press

Harvard Business Review

The Wall Street Journal

The New York Times

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Text by Sarah Lyons-Padilla

Photo CC by Innovation School

Thumbnail image by Christina / Unsplash