Stress can help you

If you think it’s good for you, it will be.

Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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Most of us are acquainted with the ill effects of stress (lost sleep, spare tires around the middle), but stress can also help us under the right circumstances, propelling us to new levels of focus and achievement. Incoming Yale president Peter Salovey ’86PhD was part of a team of researchers who say educating people about stress’s beneficial effects may help them perform better on the job.

“There are many factors that determine whether stress will be enhancing or debilitating. Most people assume that it depends on the amount of stress or the type of stress,” says Alia Crum ’12PhD, an adjunct professor of management at Columbia Business School and lead author of the paper, which appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “Our research suggests that what also matters is our mindset about stress.”

To determine how various teaching tactics affected people’s perceptions about stress, Crum, Salovey, and the rest of the research team divided more than 300 bank employees into three groups. One group watched some short videos about how stress can be beneficial, another group watched short videos about stress’s damaging effects, and the third group watched no videos at all. Not only did subjects who learned about stress’s beneficial effects come to believe in those benefits more themselves, but they also reported better work performance and an improved psychological outlook—unlike the other two groups, which showed no such changes.  A “stress-is-enhancing” mindset, Crum says, “leads people to utilize the energy and focus that accompanies the stress response.”

Crum and her colleagues are designing a course called ReThink Stress to help people thrive on stress instead of caving under its pressures. To achieve a stress-is-enhancing mindset, she recommends acknowledging—and even welcoming—stress rather than denying or avoiding it. Relishing tight deadlines might sound far-fetched, but understanding how we can benefit from stress may actually help us coast through them.

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