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Stress Mindset: A Key Reframe For Therapists and Coaches Working With Stress and Anxiety - Part 2

Stress mindset is how you view stress, and what it means to you. (To clarify I'm talking about the physiological stress response, and your attitude towards this experience.) Stress mindset conditions how you respond, and how well you cope. In the first part of this review of stress mindset, we looked at mindset more generally, and in particular growth mindset vs. fixed mindset. In my experience, clients often have a fixed mindset towards their emotions, even when they have a healthy growth mindset in other areas of their lives.

In part 2, we're looking at mindset towards the experience of stress, particularly the bodily experience of the stress response.

In my coaching work, I draw out this distinction:

  • Is stress a threat - something that will negatively affect your emotional state, your performance (physical and mental), even your health?
  • Or is stress a challenge that lifts you to a higher level of energy and performance? (i.e. the stress response is helping you cope.)

A negative stress mindset views stress as harmful, a threat - and therefore something to be avoided, averted, maybe even suppressed. Negative consequences are:

  • You'll avoid challenges and opportunities for growth and development (as with a fixed mindset).
  • Trying to avoid stress, and in particular trying to suppress the body's stress response, actually amplifies it and makes the feeling of stress and anxiety worse, and probably longer lasting.
  • You can get locked into a state of chronic stress response, which is actually harmful (unlike short bursts of stress) - your stress mindset becomes self-fulfilling.

A positive stress mindset means stress is a challenge to be embraced, moving you to perform better. The stress response is your body's mobilising energy to help you meet the challenge. It feels like excitement, not anxiety. In other words, although there is still a physical stress response, it doesn't feel like stress at all.

Probing Clients' Stress Mindset

Here are four questions you can ask clients:

  1. Do you believe the effects of stress are on the whole negative or positive?
  2. In your life, do you try to avoid stress or do you embrace it?
  3. How do you believe stress affects your well-being, health and vitality?
  4. How do you believe stress affects your performance and productivity, in your work but also beyond?

Coaches and therapists are well placed to guide clients towards a positive stress mindset.

In my experience the keys are:

  • Willingness to experience discomfort, distress (i.e. allowing it to happen, not fighting or resisting or struggling).
  • Confidence in the ability to recover – knowing the feeling won't last, etc. This is resilience, and it can be trained and developed. (Biofeedback is an ideal tool for developing resilience.)

Resources For Working With Stress Mindset

I recommend reading "The Upside of Stress: Why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it)" by Dr. Kelly McGonigal.

You can also check out these fascinating videos - the first a TED talk by Kelly McGonigal:

The next is a TED talk by Stanford psychologist Alia Crum:

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