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Stress

Insights from the OUE Research Team

It’s that time of year! With papers, projects, and exams looming, the end of the semester (not to mention the winter holidays) can be stressful for students, faculty, and staff alike. In the broadest sense, “stress” refers to the anticipation or experience of encountering a demand, which prompts physiological, emotional, and behavioral responses to help us meet or cope with that demand (i.e., stress response). Factors that cause stress (i.e., stressors) can be acute, like needing to complete a specific project in time for a deadline, or chronic, like coping with the myriad consequences of systemic oppression. The negative consequences of chronic stressors on physical and mental health have been well-documented, leading to a focus on stress reduction as a key mechanism for improving human health. Effective stress reduction techniques include engaging in physical activity, seeking social support, and getting adequate sleep.

However, it is not always possible, or even desirable, to remove stress from our lives, and recent social psychological research has shown that how we think about stress can influence stress responses and subsequent consequences for health. Alia Crum and her colleagues have documented two distinct mindsets (both supported by data) about stress. The “stress-is-debilitating” mindset holds that stress is harmful, undermines performance and productivity, and should be avoided. By contrast, the “stress-is-enhancing” mindset holds that the effects of stress can be positive, helping to facilitate learning, performance, and growth, and should be embraced. Compared to stress-is-debilitating mindsets, stress-is-enhancing mindsets are associated with more adaptive cortisol response, increased desire for feedback, higher positive emotion, and improved cognitive flexibility in the face of stress. The good news is beliefs about stress can be changed (see a helpful toolkit here), and altering stress mindsets can be especially helpful for those who worry that stress is harmful—that is, those who experience a lot of stress about stress.