While most people believe stress is seriously harmful to their health, it turns out that your stress mindset—or how you think about stress—influences whether your psychological and physiological reaction to stress impacts you positively or negatively. Some evidence suggests those who experience lots of stress and feel that it negatively affects their health have a nearly 50% increased risk of premature death. However, those who experience lots of stress but don’t believe it’s all bad tend to have a much lower risk of death.
It isn’t realistic to suggest that life could ever be stress-free, especially for Warfighters and their families. You might be convinced all stress is bad, but it actually can be good for you.
The human body’s natural stress response helps keep you safe from threats and danger by signaling you to either stand your ground and fight or flee to safety. This “fight-or-flight” response is valuable when activated for short periods because your body mobilizes physiological and psychological resources to help you deal effectively with threats. For example, your heart speeds up to pump more blood to your muscles, and your attention narrows so that you can hone in on the threat. Your body mobilizes stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to energize you and dampen fear.
“Stress is the enemy” mindset
Even though your body’s stress response helps enhance your natural physical defenses and sharpen your mental state to keep you safe from harm, you still might believe stress is the enemy. You might think, “Stress is bad for me and I should avoid it at all costs” or “Stress makes me weak.” You might associate the physical and psychological sensations that come with the stress response as harmful. In some cases, the nervous emotions and physical sensations that come with stress actually become stressors themselves. If you believe stress is bad and harmful, you’re more likely to turn inward and isolate yourself or avoid all challenges, depriving yourself of opportunities to learn or do things such as lose weight. This mindset also can impact your physiology. For example, when your heart starts pumping harder, it’ll likely cause more constriction and inflammation in your blood vessels.
“Stress is an ally” mindset
On the flip side, there’s another set of beliefs that suggest stress can be your ally. You might think, “Stress is good for me and I should embrace it. Stress makes me stronger.” Seeing the stress response this way enables you to use stress to build competence, strengthen social connections, and integrate lessons learned so that you can be better prepared for the future. When your mindset befriends stress, the physiological impact is different too. For example, when your heart starts pumping harder, there likely is relaxation in your blood vessels, less inflammation, and pumping that mimics exercise, which can help strengthen and boost cardiovascular health.
How you think about stress—your stress mindset—can affect whether it helps or harms your health and well-being. When you think about stress being your ally rather than your enemy, you can train yourself to experience more of the positive effects of the stress response. Chronic, uncontrollable stress can damage your physical and mental well-being. But for most other kinds of stress, your mindset matters. So, what’s your stress mindset?