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Stress Mindset: A Key Reframe For Therapists and Coaches Working With Stress & Anxiety

In an earlier article in this series, I wrote about a reframe that's key to teaching clients how to work with biofeedback. Remember, reframing means presenting a problem in a new way, or seeing it from a different perspective, or perhaps shifting the emphasis from an insoluble problem to a related problem that is soluble.

The quicksand-trap metaphor is a reframe that says the real problem is not an emotion such as anxiety or anger but an unhelpful response or coping strategy that whips it up into something much worse. The real goal is not to get rid of or avoid the problem emotion but to find a more effective way of working with it.

Here's another key reframe used by coaches and therapists: the true problem is not the stress response but the client's mindset or attitude towards the experience of stress. It's related to the first reframe in the sense that the “wrong” mindset makes things worse: it turns a mildly disagreeable experience into a major problem.

Teaching clients about mindset can create transformative insights. Clients can shine the light of awareness on their own mindset, they can see its consequences, and they can see that alternatives are possible.

When it comes to stress, there are two key aspects of mindset (mindset being the set of beliefs and assumptions, perhaps unconscious, that condition how you see things and how you go about doing things). The first is growth mindset, and the second is covered in a separate article, coming soon in this series.

Growth Mindset (vs. Fixed Mindset)

Positive psychologist Carol Dweck coined the term “growth mindset” to describe how people think and feel about learning and intelligence - her research documents its fundamental importance (from an early age) in determining success in all walks of life.

What Is Growth Mindset?

Fundamentally it's the view that change is possible, and achievable through application, effort and learning. Even intelligence is not cast in stone but can be developed. Growth mindset conditions your response to set-backs: you can overcome such temporary obstacles through commitment and persistence.

The opposite is fixed mindset, which sees set-backs as failure resulting from innate lack of intelligence, talent or ability. Having a fixed mindset means you give up easily, fail to learn from experience, avoid challenges, and generally miss out on developing to your full potential.

Suppose you've failed an exam. From the point of view of a fixed mindset, this is evidence of your shortcomings, your inherent lack of ability and talent.

But the growth mindset sees it as just a temporary setback – an indication that you need to put in more hard work and application in order to pass it next time. In the growth mindset a failure is never really a failure, it's just feedback, an opportunity for learning.

Resources For Growth Mindset Work

Here's a popular TED talk by Carol Dweck:

Your clients can check out their mindset using an online questionnaire such as this one from Professor Dweck:

Online mindset questionnaire from Professor Dweck.

In reality growth mindset are more like two poles on a spectrum. Moreover, we can show a growth mindset in some contexts but not others. For example you might have a growth mindset toward foreign languages but a fixed mindset around using computers.

Perhaps the most useful mindset question we as therapists and coaches can ask out clients is this: in which parts of your life do you have a growth mindset, and which parts fixed?

In particular, what kind of mindset does the client have when it comes to emotional intelligence, or the ability to work with and regulate emotions?

In my own experience as a stress management coach, my clients tend towards fixed mindset when it comes to emotions. (That's probably part of the reason why they are clients.)

In the second part of this review of stress mindset we'll take a look at mindset towards the experience of the stress response.

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