How to Hack Your Stress Response

Woman doing yoga on a mountain

There are various ways to hack your stress response and today I will share with you one the most potent ways to do this. I know this sounds weird, but what if everything you’ve been told about stress causing you to develop negative health outcomes related to stress was wrong?  Researchers have based their careers on spreading the message that stress leads to negative health outcomes. It turns out your perception of life challenges as either overwhelming or a challenge worth overcoming, goes a long way to determining how harmful stress can be in your life.

 

Work or Exercise?

Crum and Langer (2007) performed an intriguing study where they increased the health of hotel maids working by altering the perception of their work. There were two groups of maids in this study from 2 separate, equally matched hotels, a control group (N = 40) and an informed group (N = 44).

Both groups were told that “…exercise does not need to be hard or painful to be good for one’s health, but that it is simply a matter of moving one’s muscles and burning calories (accumulating approximately 200 calories per day to meet the recommendations).”

The informed group received additional information, including

“…specific details of the average calorie expenditure for various activities (changing linens for 15 min burns 40 calories, vacuuming for 15 min burns 50 calories, and cleaning bathrooms for 15 min burns 60 calories), and they were told that although these figures were based on results for a 140-pound woman and each of them would burn calories at a different rate, it was clear that they were easily meeting and even exceeding the Surgeon General’s recommendations.”

The informed group also received individual handouts, and they displayed large posters tacked in their lounge to remind them of how much exercise they were getting each day.

Those in the informed group reported that they were getting more exercise during work and an overall increase in regular exercise. They also showed significant weight loss, decreased body mass index, lower waist to hip ratio, lower systolic blood pressure, and lower diastolic blood pressure. The control group indicated no significant change throughout the 4-week experimental protocol. How we perceive work can have a huge impact on how work affects us, both perceptually and physically. But, what about stress?

 

Stress Mindset Measure (SMM)

More specific to stress, Crum, Salovey, and Achor (2013) propose that the stress-is-debilitating mindset will lead individuals to avoid stress or manage stress to avoid debilitating negative consequences. In contrasts, the stress-is-enhancing mindset will promote the acceptance of stress and use stress towards achieving positive outcomes. Essentially, the authors predict that the stress-is-enhancing group will adopt a challenge perspective and the stress-is-debilitating group will adopt a threat perspective.

The premise for this study reminds me of an example my advisor used when describing the “Schacter 2 factor theory”, a theory that describes how appraisal of the environment shapes how we interpret physiological arousal and subsequent emotional response. He describes a scenario where two individuals jump out of a plane, one is a new military recruit and the other is the commander of the brigade.

 

Excitement vs Fear

The recruit has adrenaline and noradrenaline pumping furiously through his veins and his heart is pounding out of his chest, the environment of being on a giant transport plane thousands of feet above solid ground causes the recruit to interpret his arousal as fear. The commander also has the same stress response as the recruit, but the commander interprets this sensation as excitement and finds the experience thrilling. So which one do you think will develop an ulcer or stress-related chronic disease? It won’t be the commander!

The authors propose that when one adopts the stress-is-debilitating mindset the response to stress can either be hypo or hyperactivated. Hypo-activated arousal when an individual either escapes the stress through avoidance or self-medication and hyper-aroused because… well you know…stress is debilitating, but also through counteractive coping mechanisms such as thought suppression. In contrast, the stress-is-enhancing mindset will help an individual get to the arousal sweet spot, where an individual has the energy to achieve goals without compromising their psychological and physiological well-being. This is also the sweet spot described in the Job Demands-Resource Theory (Demerouti) and is also well described in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”.

 

Study Results

So what did Crum, Salovey, and Achor (2013) do in their study? The researchers showed participants three different 3-minute videos on how stress can affect the domains of health, performance, and learning/growth. They designed the videos to show either the enhancing nature of stress or the debilitating nature of stress. There was also a control group, which viewed none of the videos. They presented the videos over the course of one week.

They found that participants readily changed their mindsets about stress in either the positive or negative direction. Participants in the stress-is-enhancing group reported improvements in well-being and improved work performance, the stress-is-debilitating group did not. What is interesting is that the stress-is-debilitating group showed no difference in their perceived well-being and work performance compared to the control group. The finding implies that most participants ALREADY had adopted the stress-is-debilitating mindset and showing them videos about HOW debilitating stress can be, wasn’t new information.

 

In conclusion

At the end of the day, people mostly experience the same situations, scenarios, and stress. Some of us get sick, develop anxiety and potentially depression, while others seem to thrive and grow. We have to accept our lack of control over most of the events in our lives, but we DO have control over how we interpret them. It may be more beneficial to change your mindset than to resist your stress response. See the experiences in your life as a challenge that will promote your growth and confidence, instead of seeing experiences as a threat to either fight or avoid. It can be easier to maintain the perspective of seeing stress as a challenge as long as you have social support and attend to your allostatic threshold/load.

 

Refernces

  1. Crum, A. J., & Langer, E. J. (2007). Mind-set matters exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science, 18(2), 165-171.
  2. 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.
  3. Flow, C. (1990). The psychology of optimal experience. Harper&Row, New York.

 

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