Can't retire to a peaceful mountain cabin? You can still reduce the toll stress takes on your health by simply rethinking it.
Imagine your life without stress.
For about a second that peaceful existence living in a beachside bungalow or pursuing a full-time career as a ski bum probably sounds pretty good.
But very quickly it hits you: getting rid of the stress would mean giving up your business, possibly those pesky, stress-inducing kids, and all the other challenges that fry your nerves but give meaning and a sense of accomplishment to your life.
Starting a business is exciting, but the side effect is stress, and stress is inevitably terrible for your mental and physical health. That wear and tear is just the price you pay for an exciting life, right?
Not necessarily, says a fascinating recent post by Columbia Business School's Heidi Grant Halvorson on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network. Sure, she argues, stress may be inevitable for entrepreneurs and other busy professionals, but its destructive power rests not in its simple existence, but in how we think about it.
In short, science suggests that how we think about stress determines how harmful it is to our health:
The amount of stress you encounter is a surprisingly poor predictor of whether it will leave you worse (or better) off.
As it turns out, your mindset about stress may be the most important predictor of how it affects you. As [stress researchers] Crum, Salovey, and Achor discovered, people have different beliefs about stress. Some people — arguably most people — believe that stress is a bad thing. They agreed with statements like "The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided," and the researchers called this the stress-is-debilitating mindset. Those who instead agreed that "Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth" had what they called a stress-is-enhancing mindset.
In their studies, Crum and colleagues began by identifying stress mindsets among a group of nearly 400 employees of an international financial institution. They found that those employees who had stress-is-enhancing mindsets (compared to stress-is-debilitating) reported having better health, greater life satisfaction, and superior work performance.
That's awesome, you might respond. I'd love to transform stress from a likely risk factor for a heart attack into a learning aid but, alas, I'm stuck with my natural "stress-is-debilitating mindset." Nope, says Halverson. The evidence points to the fact that your mindset is malleable.
"If you have been living with a stress-is-debilitating mindset (like most of us), you don't have to be stuck with it," she declares, citing a portion of the study in which some participants were shown short videos guiding them to think more positively about stress. The results: "Those in the stress-is-enhancing group (i.e., the lucky ones) reported significant increases in both well-being and work performance." Check out the complete post for more details.
"All this research paints a very clear picture: stress is killing you because you believe that it is," concludes Halverson.
Do you need to change the way you think about stress?
JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel