Stress: Behaviour and mindset

In the previous post, we looked at how perceiving ourselves to not be equipped to deal with demands can lead to stress. Today we’ll be picking up where we left off, by exploring in more detail the importance of proactive stress-busting habits and mindset when it comes to successfully facing our day-to-day challenges.

As we’ll look at later on in this post, how we perceive potentially stressful events and circumstances in our lives can influence the degree of strain we experience because of them. Still, stress is a normal part of life for many of us. With this in mind, it’s important to highlight the importance of our day-to-day lifestyle choices when it comes to offsetting its impact.

Healthy Lifestyle

Research has shown that a healthy lifestyle can act as a buffer against the negative impacts of stress. One study showed that although accumulated stress can lead to accelerated cellular ageing, healthy eating, good sleep and regular exercise can help to reduce this effect [1]. In another study, it was shown that the same healthy lifestyle factors helped to offset the effects of work-related stress on coronary heart disease [2]. Whichever way you look at it, there is a strong case for healthy living.  In a nutshell, this comes down to the following:

  1. Nutrition – Eat a healthy diet, with a particular focus on vegetables. This has been associated with a lower incidence of psychological stress, especially amongst women [3].
  2. Sleep – Aim for at least seven hours of quality sleep each night (unless you happen to fall inside the 5% of the population that can thrive on less due to a rare genetic mutation [4].)
  3. Exercise – Exercise as often as you’re able. Research shows that exercise boosts our resilience, helping us to cope better with acute bouts of stress [5].

The Importance of Mindset

When we are healthy we are more likely to feel equipped with the necessary resources to handle stressors that come our way. But as we’ve already mentioned, we can take this one step further by reframing our mindset around the demands we face on a day-to-day basis. When we start to appreciate that stress arises more from how we perceive our circumstances, rather than the circumstances themselves, we begin to appreciate the power of our beliefs.  Let’s take a look at two mindsets that can help transform our relationship to the common challenges we all face:

Growth mindset –When we believe that stressful events are challenges that can help us grow and learn, we help to mitigate feelings of threat and the stress response associated with this. The work of Carol Dweck has shown us that intentionally adopting a growth mindset around difficulties we face can help to bring more meaning and purpose to our lives, which we know supports our mental wellbeing.

Stress-is-enhancing mindset – We can build on this growth mindset by also choosing to view the typical stress-related arousal response as a performance enhancer. Research shows that perceiving arousal symptoms such as an elevated heartbeat or increased breathing rate as enhancing, rather than debilitating, can actually reduce cortisol reactivity and boost the release of protective hormones in our body and brain, helping to support, rather than negatively impact our physical and mental health [6].

The Way Forward?

These insights around stress and the positive and proactive role we can play in our own lives can be empowering. We will have good days and we will have bad days, but knowing that we can take steps towards supporting our mental wellbeing when faced with common difficulties can be very helpful.

We will likely never be able to rid our lives of stress, but our behaviours and how we interpret circumstances in our lives can either aggravate or reduce its impact. That being said, responding to ourselves kindly, rather than judgmentally when we do feel stressed, and acknowledging the common humanity in the experience is hugely important too.

[1] Retrieved from http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2014/07/116141/healthylifestylemaybuffer-againststress-relatedcellagingstudy-says 223. Harris, R. (2014, July 9).

[2] Canadian Medical Association Journal. “Heart disease: Healthy lifestyle offsets work-related stress, study suggests.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 May 2013.

[3] https://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2017/03/16/some-veggies-each-day-keeps-the-stress-blues-away.html

[4] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/genetic-mutation-sleep-less/

[5] Childs E, de Wit H. Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in Physiology. 2014;5:161. doi:10.3389/fphys.2014.00161.

[6] Crum, A., Akinola, M., Martin, A., & Fath, S. (2017). The Role of Stress Mindset in Shaping Cognitive, Emotional, & Physiological Responses to Challenging & Threatening Stress. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping.

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