How Your Stress Mindset Influences Your Stress Response

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Upside of Stress" by Kelly McGonigal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you try to avoid stress, or do you intentionally seek it out? How does your mindset influence your stress response?

Everybody gets stressed, but the effect stress has on your life depends on your mindset about it. Because your stress mindset influences your thoughts, goals, and actions related to stress, it determines the consequences of stress in your life.

In this article, you’ll learn what a mindset is, why it’s important for transforming stress, and how to change it. 

What Is a Mindset?

According to McGonigal, a mindset is a set of beliefs that influences your perception of reality. McGonigal explains that you probably have a lot of beliefs, but not all of your beliefs are mindsets. For example, you might believe honey goes better with peanut butter than jelly does, but this belief doesn’t affect your outlook on life or influence your daily decisions (except during lunch, maybe). 

In contrast, a mindset is a pervasive philosophy that determines your thoughts, goals, and actions. For example, if you believe college is a transactional experience, in which you go through the motions to earn your degree, you’ll probably do whatever’s necessary to make passable grades. However, if you believe college is an opportunity to explore your interests, become a better thinker, and grow as a person, you’ll likely engage more with the school’s resources and have a more meaningful learning experience.

(Shortform note: Psychologists say that a healthy perception of reality is founded on perceptions that anchor you close to reality. This is important because if you’re delusional—that is, your view of the world is significantly different from the actual world—it can make functioning in society more difficult and lead to mental illness. To make sure your perceptions are reflective of reality, regularly seek out evidence and experts that challenge your views, be willing to change your views, and remain open to other people’s perceptions.)

Why Is Your Stress Mindset Important?

McGonigal cites a 1998 study showing that high levels of stress increased the risk of death by 43%—except for those who didn’t believe stress was harmful. In fact, the lowest risk of death occurred in those who experienced high stress but didn’t believe it was harmful. This risk was even lower than those who reported low levels of stress. Although the researchers didn’t manipulate the participants’ mindsets—and thus, couldn’t say for certain that a difference in mindset was the cause—participants’ negative mindset was the strongest predictor for mortality.

McGonigal has been criticized for the use of this study in her book, which she credits as the catalyst for her research on mindset’s relationship with stress. One critic describes the finding of this study as a correlation, not causation. In other words, because the study couldn’t account for all the factors that led to the result, there could have been other causes for the premature death of people who believed stress was harmful. For example, they might have believed stress was harmful because they had previous health complications due to stress.  

However, McGonigal recognizes that the study was correlational and speculates about other potential factors that might explain the results, such as personality predispositions or differences in the type of stress experienced by the participants. Further, McGonigal doesn’t prop her argument up on this study, but rather, she explains that it piqued her curiosity and motivated her to explore more research, which eventually led to the argument she presents in this book.

How to Change Your Stress Mindset

If you’re starting to feel stressed about your negative outlook on stress, don’t fret; mindsets can be changed. A shift in mindset can be triggered by something as simple as brief exposure to a new way of thinking

Further, McGonigal explains that even if a new idea doesn’t remain conscious in your mind, it can still subconsciously influence your thoughts and actions in the future. In one study, high school freshmen in a poorly performing school were given a 30-minute presentation about adopting a growth mindset—that is, the belief that traits like intelligence aren’t predetermined and can improve with effort. These freshmen passed algebra at a rate of 81% compared to 58% of the control students. The students receiving the presentation on mindset were also healthier and improved their GPA from 1.6 to 2.6. 

Recent research suggests that adolescents can apply growth mindsets more effectively when their shift to a growth mindset is encouraged by their environment. For instance, instructing teachers—not just students—on how to develop and apply growth mindsets can lead to more sustainable mindset shifts.

Multiple studies explore how adolescents can change their mindset for the better, but can you become too old to change your mindset? Contrary to the idiom, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” psychologists say that changing your mindset is possible at any point in life because your brain is neuroplastic, which means it can continue to learn and change throughout your lifetime. So, don’t feel like it’s too late to change your stress mindset.
How Your Stress Mindset Influences Your Stress Response

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Upside of Stress summary:

  • Why stress is an ally that should be embraced
  • How stress can lead to enhanced health, greater success, and a more meaningful life
  • How to change your mindset about stress to receive its benefits

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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