Friday 21 June 2024

SERIES: Potentially Contrarian Ideas – 2. Some stress can benefit you, with the right mindset

We all know how bad stress is for us. It shortens our lives and makes an already short life less enjoyable. There are different kinds of stress, some better than others, but overall, reducing stress is best. For example, small bursts of acute stressors, like lifting weights during exercise, are beneficial to your muscles. On the other hand, continuous chronic stress on your muscles can lead to them becoming permanently weakened or even permanently damaged. The same is even more true for mental stress; while one might be able to handle bouts of acute stress, chronic mental stress leads to burnout and various other ailments.

Mo Gawdat and Alice Law have an interesting book about how to become “Unstressable”, in which they discuss the three L’s of managing and overcoming stress:

  • Limit exposure to stressors.
  • Listen to what our minds and bodies are saying and take corrective action.
  • Learn how to deal with it.

It is the third point, "Learn how to deal with it," that intrigues me, especially when reframed with David Yeager's work on the right stress mindset. Yeager’s research indicates that how we experience stress depends on our beliefs about its impact on our health. If we believe that stress can only have negative effects, it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, if we can reframe our belief that the stress we are feeling might lead to better outcomes, we have a better chance of benefiting from it.

For example, when I feel nervous energy before an important meeting or presentation, I can do one of two things. I can let the nervousness affect my confidence, which might cause me to fumble during the meeting. Instead, if I reframe the nervousness by acknowledging that the physiological symptoms are my body sending more blood to my brain to keep me ready, I can make the stress work for me instead of against me. This approach is more likely to help us harness stress and use it to our advantage.

This contrarian reframe is termed a “synergistic mindset intervention,” which targets both the growth mindset (the idea that intelligence can be developed) and the stress-can-be-enhancing mindset (the idea that one's physiological stress response can fuel optimal performance).

I have been experimenting with this for some time now. As a big fan of checklists to support one's life by removing guesswork, I created a checklist that I can easily access before work meetings. When I notice stress or anxiety before a meeting, I quickly scan my checklist and follow the steps.

This has been my way of introducing a synergistic mindset intervention to soften the jitters. Emerging research indicates that it's time to reframe the narrative on stress. Yes, stress is bad, and we need to reduce it. But since it is impossible to escape it, we should actively start reframing it. We need to normalize the acceptance that stress can be enhancing. 

Stress with the right mindset about its ability to enhance our abilities, can make us more anti-fragile.


  1. Unstressable: A Practical guide to stress free living
  2. A Synergistic mindsets intervention protects adolescents from stress
  3. How to tame stress - The Happiness Lab

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