“There is nothing either good or bad, only thinking makes it so” - William Shakespeare
Building an adaptive mindset isn’t a sprint - it’s a marathon. And like any good marathon runner will tell you, the first thing you need to do before you even start training is shift your mindset towards what you want to accomplish.
Your subconscious mind greatly influences your actions and how you perceive experiences. When it comes to your mindset on stress, this can have powerful implications, both positive and negative.
Take the stress paradox, for example, as described by psychologist Dr.Kelly McGonigal in her 2013 Ted Talk.
The stress paradox describes the psychological phenomenon where your belief on whether stress is helpful or harmful to you can actually influence how much stress impacts you physically. A 2012 study by Keller Litzelman Wisk et al., who tracked 30,000 adults for eight years, found that those who believed that stress was physically harmful were much more likely to experience severe or even life-threatening conditions associated with stress. On the other hand, those who believed that stress was helpful - in that it promotes action, encourages growth or helps us to survive- experienced positive physiological responses to stress rather than negative ones.
Further evidence of the influence of mindset on our body’s physiological responses, comes from the work of Dr. Alia Crum from Stanford University.
Through a study with hotel workers (Crum, Alia J, and Ellen J Langer.,2007), Dr. Crum tested the hypothesis that a positive mindset towards stress would produce positive physiological responses.
Dr.Crum separated her study group into two and showed each group a video. The control group was shown an irrelevant video, while the second group was shown a video that equated the work that hotel workers do, such as vacuuming, scrubbing, and climbing stairs, to an active lifestyle and an exercise regimen. After watching this video, the hotel workers were sent back to their daily routines and reassessed a few months later.
Remarkably, the hotel workers who had seen the video that suggested their work was contributing to maintaining an active and healthy lifestyle showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, and body mass index compared with the control group after only four weeks.
These results may not be surprising given the long and substantiated body of research on the placebo effect, but what is new are the tools and methods being used to deliberately shape context and influence mindset. As you’ve no doubt seen through advertisements, political campaigns, and even the thoughts of your friends and family, the power of influential mindsets is strong and can be used to your benefit or detriment.
Within yourself, taking conscious control over your mindset can shape how you perceive your circumstances and situations. If you tell yourself day in and day out that you’re stuck and helpless, then your physiology will respond accordingly.
If, on the other hand, you tell yourself a different story - that there is a way forward, that you can grow and rise above your challenges, using stress as a motivator, then that is exactly what you will do.
The same thinking applies to your team.
You, as a leader, play a significant role in shaping your team’s experience of stress. If you continue to point out the capabilities and strengths that have been developed through dealing with these challenging and stressful times, you create a different mindset about the meaning of stress.
This is not to say that you should dismiss people’s experiences and emotions as they relate to stress. It is also very important for people to feel that there is empathy and acknowledgement for their challenges and suffering. The choice point - seeing stress as helpful or harmful - comes after you’ve acknowledged and felt the distress. At this stage, you can reframe how you view the experience to become more capable and adaptable instead of telling yourself you are a victim of unchangeable circumstances.
Building a better mindset might sound challenging, but you have the tools inside you to do it, and it starts with opening yourself up to the possibility of change starting from within.