Stress mindset refers to a set of beliefs individuals hold about the consequences of experiencing stress. This includes the belief that stress has enhancing consequences (i.e., a stress-is-enhancing mindset) and the contrasting belief that stress has debilitating consequences (i.e., a stress-is-debilitating mindset) for health and vitality, performance and productivity, and learning and growth (Crum et al. 2013). Stress mindset contrasts with transactional stress appraisal (Lazarus & Folkman 1984); in that the former concerns beliefs about the stress response in general which is theorized to apply across situations, whereas the latter is a single response to a stressor in a particular situation.
Mindsets refer to the beliefs about the malleability of personal qualities that serve as a mental lens or framework through which people make predictions about and judge the meaning of life events (Dweck et al. 1995; Yeager & Dweck 2012). Mindsets are otherwise known as implicit theories in the literature. The term “implicit” is ascribed to these beliefs as they tend not to be explicitly articulated (Dweck et al. 1995; Yeager & Dweck 2012). However, it is not clear whether mindsets are truly implicit and operating outside of conscious awareness, consistent with dual-process theories of cognition and behavior.
Crum et al. (2013) applied the mindset concept to stress research, finding that stress mindset influences a range of stress-related outcomes and is distinct from other important variables in the stress process, such as stressor appraisal and amount of stress. Supporting the notion that stress mindset is a distinct variable in the stress process, Kilby and Sherman (2016) found stress mindset exhibited a moderate correlation with challenge appraisal and no significant correlation with threat appraisal following a mathematics stressor task. They also found no significant difference in stress mindset scores before and after the stressor task, suggesting that stress mindset may not be influenced by stressful events. The potential implicit operation of stress mindset was explored by Keech et al. (2018) using an implicit association test (IAT) based on the single-category procedure (Karpinski & Steinman 2006). Despite the reliability of the test being adequate, the test was not related to any of the outcome variables or the explicit measure of stress mindset. Given this was preliminary research, further studies are needed to understand the processes through which stress mindsets operate.
Mean stress mindset scores across a range of observational studies and experimental studies premanipulation indicate that on average people by default tend to endorse a stress-is-debilitating mindset (Crum et al. 2013, 2017; Keech et al. 2018; Kilby & Sherman 2016; Park et al. 2018). Crum et al. (2013) argue that this is due to public health messages being framed around the requirement of reducing stress to prevent negative consequences. Despite these defaults, several studies have demonstrated that stress mindsets are malleable, with mean mindset scores rising to a level that reflects endorsing a stress-is-enhancing mindset following an experimental manipulation (Crum et al. 2013, 2017).
Measuring Stress Mindset
To date, two self-report measures of stress mindset have been published: the Stress Mindset Measure (SMM; Crum et al. 2013) and the Stress Control Mindset Measure (SCMM; Keech et al. 2018). The SMM is an eight-item scale that examines the extent to which an individual holds a stress-is-enhancing mindset. There is a general and a stressor-specific version. No known studies have been published using the specific version following its initial publication. Crum et al. (2013) describe stress-is-enhancing and stress-is-debilitating mindsets as two ends of a spectrum, and items in the SMM are presented as fixed-enhancing (e.g., “Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity”) versus fixed-debilitating (e.g., “Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity”). However, many people have non-enhancing experiences of stress, and stress can be both enhancing and debilitating. Preliminary evidence from experimental research also suggests that presenting a balanced view of stress rather than a positive or negative view of stress alone yields lower heart rates and diastolic blood pressure following a laboratory-induced stressor (Liu et al. 2017). Arguing that the polarized approach to measurement of stress mindset diverges from how the construct was conceptualized by Crum et al. (2013) and from mindset theory more broadly (e.g., Dweck et al. 1995; Job et al. 2015), Keech et al. (2018) developed the 15-item SCMM. The SCMM is framed to assess the extent to which an individual holds the mindset that stress “can be” enhancing (e.g., “Stress can be used to enhance your performance and productivity”).
Associations Between Stress Mindset and Health-Related Outcomes
Several experimental and correlational studies have observed effects of stress mindset on health and wellbeing, physiological, and affective outcomes in response to laboratory stressor tasks and ecological stress experiences over short periods of time. For example, Crum et al. (2017), in an experimental study examining the influence of stress mindset on a range of outcomes in response to a laboratory stressor, found those who were primed with a stress-is-enhancing mindset exhibited greater positive but not negative affect when anticipating and following the induced stressor. Other studies have examined the association between stress mindset and health and wellbeing outcomes in the context of ecological experiences of stress. Park et al. (2018) found that stress mindset moderated the effect of stressful life events on perceived distress (mediator) and in turn self-control. Keech et al. (2018) found that stress mindset predicted proactive coping behavior under stress, perceived general somatic symptoms, perceived distress, perceived physical health, and, indirectly, psychological wellbeing. Crum et al. (2013) observed a small effect of a stress mindset manipulation on depression and anxiety symptoms from baseline to three days postintervention among company employees.
Two studies have examined the physiological effects of stress mindset when faced with laboratory-induced stressors. Crum et al. (2013) reported that stress mindset moderated the effect of a laboratory-induced stressor on cortisol, yet Crum et al. (2017) found no effect of stress mindset on cortisol in anticipation of, and following, a laboratory-induced stressor. These physiological effects should therefore be interpreted with caution and further research is required to replicate these findings. Crum et al. (2017) also found a quadratic effect of stress mindset on dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) – a neurosteroid hormone which in reduced levels may increase vulnerability to neurotoxic effects of stress (Maninger et al. 2009) – with those in the enhancing condition experiencing sharper increases and sharper declines in DHEAS prior to and following the laboratory-induced stressor.
Two correlational studies support that stress mindset influences coping responses. Measuring workload anticipation and approach coping daily over five days, Casper et al. (2017) found that employees endorsing a stress-is-enhancing mindset made more approach-coping efforts in anticipation of a high workload. Keech et al. (2018) also found in a cross-sectional study that stress mindset predicted proactive coping behavior under stress.
Providing further evidence to support these notions that beliefs about stress can influence health outcomes, two large national longitudinal studies have found the perception that stress is affecting one’s health to be associated with premature death in the United States (Keller et al. 2012) and adverse cardiovascular events in the United Kingdom (Nabi et al. 2013).
How Could Stress Mindset Improve Health?
Keech et al. (2018) proposed a stress beliefs model outlining two mechanisms through which stress mindsets may improve health and wellbeing outcomes. The first of which is that those endorsing more of an enhancing stress mindset would favor more proactive behaviors when coping with stress. The study demonstrated empirically that proactive behavior under stress mediated the influence of stress mindset on psychological wellbeing and perceived stress. Further research is required to evaluate causal links and to examine the role of more emotion-focused coping behaviors under stress in this process.
The second mechanism proposed by Keech et al. (2018) is that those endorsing more of an enhancing stress mindset may interpret the physiological arousal characteristic of the stress response as less adverse than those holding more of a debilitating stress mindset. Keech et al. (2018) provided preliminary empirical support for this process, finding that self-reported perceived general somatic symptoms mediated the effect of stress mindset on psychological wellbeing, perceived stress, and perceived physical health. Further investigation of this process is required. One line of future enquiry is examining whether stress mindsets influence the use of situational cognitive strategies such as arousal reappraisal when under stress (Jamieson et al. 2012).
Conclusion and Future Directions
While preliminary evidence points to positive outcomes being associated with eliciting a stress-is-enhancing mindset prior to the experience of laboratory-induced stressors and ecological stressors over a short period of time, observed effects have been small to medium in magnitude, and it remains unclear whether these mindsets would be activated during the experience of acute and chronic ecological stressors with established links to adverse health outcomes over longer periods of time. Future research should seek to investigate the influence of stress mindset in these contexts to better understand whether these mindsets can be leveraged to meaningfully reduce the impact of stress on health. Further exploration of the mechanisms through which stress mindsets may influence outcomes is also important for maximizing intervention effects and for determining appropriate applications of these interventions.
References and Further Reading
- Crum, A. J., Akinola, M., Martin, A., & Fath, S. (2017). The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 30(4), 379–395. https://doi.org/10.1080/10615806.2016.1275585.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer Publishing.Google Scholar
- Maninger, N., Wolkowitz, O. M., Reus, V. I., Epel, E. S., & Mellon, S. H. (2009). Neurobiological and neuropsychiatric effects of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and DHEA sulfate (DHEAS). Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 30(1), 65–91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yfrne.2008.11.002.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Nabi, H., Kivimäki, M., Batty, G. D., Shipley, M. J., Britton, A., Brunner, E. J., …, & Singh-Manoux, A. (2013). Increased risk of coronary heart disease among individuals reporting adverse impact of stress on their health: The Whitehall II prospective cohort study. European Heart Journal, 34(34), 2697–2705. https://doi.org/10.1093/eurheartj/eht216.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar