Alia Crum, PhD, is an assistant professor at Stanford University and is the principle investigator of its Mind & Body Lab. She has won the National Institutes of Health New Innovator Award, a mention in the The New York Times Magazine’s “Year in Ideas,” and was a speaker at TEDMED 2016. Dr. Crum has also worked as a clinical psychologist for the VA healthcare system and as an organizational trainer and consultant. Read more about her work here.
Reprinted with permission from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health Blog.
Three days before my regional gymnastics meet in Arkansas I landed awkwardly on a practice vault, clashing my inner ankle bones. The pain was excruciating – as was the prospect of an injury crushing my dream of competing nationally. I was determined to go on, so I decided to adopt the mindset that I could mentally overcome my physical injury. I diligently iced, taped and tended to it while visualizing myself making it to nationals in spite of the setback.
I competed and placed high enough to qualify, and was elated as well as surprised by how little the pain had affected me. Another surprise: An x-ray the next day showed that my ankle had been broken.
My experience at age 10 shows the power of mindset – the frame of mind through which we perceive, interpret and organize an inherently complex world. The ability to make sense of the world through our mindsets is a natural part of being human. But the mindsets we hold are not inconsequential. In fact they change reality by influencing our attention, affect, motivation, and physiology. I had decided my injury wasn’t going to influence my performance, and almost impossibly, it didn’t.
Experiencing the powerful effects of mindset as an athlete inspired my career as an academic health psychologist. It led me on a journey to find out: just how important are mindsets? Where do they matter most? How can we leverage them to improve health and wellbeing?
The resulting past ten years of research by my colleagues and I has revealed that mindsets are in fact powerful and are often overlooked. Here are some insights from our work.
Your beliefs about stress influence how it affects you.
Stress is a great example of how mindsets can be self-fulfilling. Stressful situations are unavoidable. And yet we’ve found that most people perceive stress as negative – even debilitating. Media or public education campaigns warn us about its harmful effects. However, ample evidence suggests that stress can enhance how our minds and bodies function. It’s how a person thinks about stress that can determine its effects, according to our research.
For example, in one study we told participants – employees in a financial company that was downsizing – that stress can help rather than hurt them. As a result, they reported fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, higher levels of optimism, and improved work performance versus the control group. In another study we showed that adopting a “stress is enhancing” mindset leads to optimal physiological stress responses, marked by moderate levels of cortisol and high levels of the growth hormone DHEA.
These beliefs about stress tend to be self-reinforcing. So if stress helps you succeed, it reinforces a mindset that stress is helpful. This is particularly important to model for children. Parents can help in explaining that experiencing stress or even failure is a natural part of life that helps us learn and grow stronger.