These are stressful times. As a result of coronavirus and the disease it causes, Covid-19, millions of Americans aren’t just worried about their health, but also about their livelihoods and their futures. At the same time, warnings abound that stress itself is bad for our health and might even make us more susceptible to the illness. The irony is obvious.
Fortunately, there is an alternative approach: We can actually use that stress to improve our health and well-being. Over a decade of research — ours and that of others — suggests that it’s not the type or amount of stress that determines its impact. Instead, it’s our mind-set about stress that matters most.
In one study of 30,000 Americans, those who had the highest levels of stress were 43 percent more likely to die only if they also believed that stress was bad for their health. In contrast, those who experienced high stress but didn’t view it as harmful were the least likely to die compared to any other group in the study — including people who experienced very little stress.
We have the power to change our stress mind-sets. Our research tested the impact of stress mind-sets on employees working in the financial sector during another recent period of stress and uncertainty — the height of the 2008 financial crisis. We gave these employees a three-step guide to adopting a “stress-is-enhancing” mind-set.
One month after learning this technique, employees showed fewer negative health symptoms and increased work performance. Importantly, these benefits were achieved without changing the amount of stress employees experienced. In other words, they weren’t any less stressed, but they were experiencing their stress in an entirely new way and, as a result, were healthier and performed better.
Changing our stress mind-sets about the coronavirus may not happen instantaneously, but it is possible to shift our reaction to our stress. Based on our experience working with Navy SEALs, college students and business leaders, these are the three steps to harnessing the benefits of stress while minimizing its harmful effects. We also offer an open access tool kit, a series of online videos, to help you start practicing these steps at home, today.