When stress is reframed from a negative to a positive, it can actually help us perform better. Learn about the science of cognitive reappraisal.
NARRATOR: In a few seconds, you’re going to sing.
It’s a song you probably know. We’ll provide words and melody; you just provide the voice.
Wherever you are, belt it out! We’ll tell you how well you did at the end.
Okay, pause. We’re not actually going to make you sing Journey on the subway or while you’re eating your lunch. I mean, “some were born to sing the blues” (or in this case, 80s pop), but most of us were definitely not. But for a second there, did you feel it?
You know what I mean: the sweaty palms, pounding heart, that sudden bit of panic?
We all know what it’s like to be “stressed out,” whether we’re preparing for the stage or putting in 30% overtime to meet a deadline. And feeling this way, all the time is bad for us.
PROFESSOR KATE MCLAUGHLIN: In the short term stress can produce negative emotions, it can interfere with memory…
RICK PERRY: Uh, what’s the third one, there… The third one I can’t, sorry. Oops.
PROFESSOR KATE MCLAUGHLIN: …and actually get in the way of making good decisions and engaging in sound reasoning. In the longer term, stress can actually suppress our immune systems, increasing our risk for physical health problems as well as mental health problems.
NARRATOR: Negative stress can expand our blood vessels and prune neurons in our brains. It releases hormones associated with depression and heart disease. It impacts our judgments and the way we approach decision-making. So clearly stress is a problem. But while it makes sense that we try to solve stress by getting rid of it, the science actually points to a different solution:
PROFESSOR KATE MCLAUGHLIN: You can imagine that you’re in a situation where you have an impending deadline. You’re getting nervous about whether you’re going to be able to make it. You can reappraise that nervous feeling as your body helping you stay alert and stay focused on the challenge ahead. So rather than the impending deadline being a threat, to think about it as a challenge, something that you’re actually excited for. That your body and your mind are really turning on and sort of mobilizing resources to help you meet a goal.
NARRATOR: So if your heart is pounding, good! That means blood is pumping through your body, preparing you to act. If you’re breathing harder, great! That’s more oxygen to your brain.
The data suggest that when we do this, stress becomes associated with good things: resilience, higher cardiac efficiency, better cognitive performance, even protection from aging.
PROFESSOR KATIE MCLAUGHLIN: Turning stress on its head and thinking about it as something that can actually help instead of get in the way of our performance can actually lead to better outcomes.
NARRATOR: Think an almost 9% increase in your GRE math score. Being seen as 17% more persuasive, 10% more competent, and 15% more confident as a public speaker. Having a better golf putt. And even being more accurate at karaoke. When people were asked to perform Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ (and paid based on how good they were!), those who were told to say: “I am excited” like they really meant it were almost 30% more accurate than those who said “I am anxious.”
This may sound too good to be true, but there’s a reason we have expressions like “mind over matter” or why good clinical trials always include a placebo to make sure health benefits are coming from the drug and not just what we think we’re taking.
Reappraisal works because our beliefs are powerful. If we believe that stress can help us, it can actually drive us forward, instead of holding us back.
So let’s go back to the examples we opened with:
Songbird or not, you are really excited for this.
That fast-approaching deadline? You know what to say. Those nerves I’m feeling are keeping me alert. That pounding heart is fueling my body. I’m excited for this challenge. Let’s do this.
Maybe Journey was right all along: if we believe that stress is good for us, it can be. Just don’t stop believin’.
How does bias factor into stress? Well, bias is a stressor we have to deal with. For instance, research shows that perceived racism increases stress in Black and Latino people. For more on the impact of bias on stress and how we can deal with it, check out stress researcher Modupe Akinola’s research.
“Stress. It makes your heart pound, your breathing quicken and your forehead sweat. But while stress has been made into a public health enemy, new research suggests that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case.” For more, watch psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk: How to make stress your friend.
Beliefs are powerful. This fact is more than mantra: research demonstrates a relationship between negative emotions and cardiovascular disease. The opposite is also true; positive emotions are better for your health. Read more in Adam Hoffman’s “Are Positive Emotions Good for Your Heart?” at Greater Good Magazine.
“For many of us, the initial response to stress is to look for external fixes. We turn to productivity tools or apps that promise to help us manage mounting pressures or we look for ways to alleviate our discomfort … But these solutions are often temporary and ineffective. Managing stress over the long-term requires cultivating your own resilience skills before seeking external solutions so that you can turn changes, stresses, and challenges into opportunities.” Find the full article at Harvard Business Review.
Is it possible to build emotional resilience even during a global pandemic? According to recent research, yes. The study, conducted across 87 countries with almost 28,000 participants during the COVID-19 pandemic, found that cognitive reappraisal interventions reduced negative feelings and increased positive ones. Learn more about the work from researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School.
In this OIB module, we talk about the power of cognitive reappraisal to turn stress into something that can help us. But what about stress that you just need to bust? To hear more from Professor Kate McLaughlin about more ways to manage negative stress, watch our OHM video “4 Ways to Manage Stress”.
Brooks, A. W. (2014). Get excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(3), 1144.
Jamieson, J. P., Mendes, W. B., Blackstock, E., & Schmader, T. (2010). Turning the knots in your stomach into bows: Reappraising arousal improves performance on the GRE. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(1), 208-212.
Jamieson, J. P., Nock, M. K., & Mendes, W. B. (2012). Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(3), 417.
Moore, L. J., Vine, S. J., Wilson, M. R., & Freeman, P. (2015). Reappraising threat: How to optimize performance under pressure. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 37(3), 339-343.
“Make Stress Work for You” was created and developed by Olivia Kang, Megan Burns, Kirsten Morehouse, Evan Younger, and Mahzarin Banaji. Research and Development Assistants for this episode include Moshe Poliak and Megan Burns. Support for Outsmarting Human Minds comes from Harvard University, PwC, and Johnson & Johnson.
Narration by Olivia Kang, featuring Professor Katie McLaughlin (Harvard University)
Camera and Editing by Evan Younger, Kirsten Morehouse, and Olivia Kang
Artwork by Olivia Kang
Video footage via Storyblocks and CNBC
Music by Philip Guyler, Andy Chandler and Christopher James Corrigan, and Sam Wedgewood via Audio Network