How can we remove stress from our life so we can enjoy it more? I’ve often pondered that question for myself and my team, but after listening to the story of Alia Crum on a recent Hidden Brain episode, I realized I’ve been asking the wrong question. I’ve been trying to play it safe and keep myself and my team in our comfort zone.
Alia’s story starts in the student computer lab in the basement of the psychology department at Yale. The lone person there, stressing over the content of an upcoming dissertation she heard footsteps and dreaded the thought of lost time over conversation with whoever was coming down the hall. It was the head of IT in the psychology department, and as soon as he opened the door, he could tell she was stressed and not up for conversation. “Just a cold, dark night on the side of Everest,” he said and then shut the door. It wasn’t until weeks later that Alia realized what those odd words meant.
Cold, dark nights on Mount Everest are just what you experience if you are climbing that mountain. It is what it is. For those wanting to climb that mountain, it is something you experience. You cannot change it. And if you’re driven to climb that mountain you adopt a mindset that helps you cope with that cold dark night.
Alia’s work has centered around stress and how we react to it. First, stress is defined as the experience or anticipation of a threat or adversity in your goal-related efforts. Two things to unpack about stress to better understand how our mindset reacts, and therefore how we react. First is that stress usually comes in anticipation of a threat or adversity. Most important to understand though is that stress is connected to our goal-related efforts. If you care about something, stress will come.
“The term we use in our research is mindset. Mindset is quite literally a setting of the mind that orients an individual to a particular set of associations and expectations. We can hold mindsets about lots of different things, and the mindsets we choose matter for outcomes,” Alia said in a recent interview.
So, what’s the takeaway from Alia’s story on Hidden Brain? “Our research also suggests that stress (and other) mindsets can be changed. People can be taught to adopt a stress-is-enhancing mindset and reap the positive consequences including improved health and work performance.” Easier said than done, but certainly doable.
As a leader, stress is something we’ve signed up for … if we care. There’s just no way around it. Alia’s work can teach us that stepping back and pausing for a moment is helpful to gain clarity. In those moments we feel stressed, we have the opportunity for personal growth, not in spite of stress, but because of it.
“If we are mindful of our mindsets about stress — and of the potential power of such mindsets — it may be possible to learn how to stress better. And to appreciate the real value in those cold, dark nights on the side of Everest.” – Alia Crum