Mindset Matters: How to Embrace the Benefits of Stress
In this podcast episode, we discuss how you can channel stress to help your performance and relationships.
“Stress is natural,” says Alia Crum, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford. “Stress is inevitable when you’re living a life that’s connected with things you care about. And learning how to embrace it, learning how to work with it is really what helps us thrive and grow and perform at our highest level.”
In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, lecturer and podcast host Matt Abrahams talks with Crum about her work as the principal investigator at the Stanford Mind & Body Lab, where she is studying how people can benefit from stress. “There’s a whole side of stress that shows that it can have enhancing qualities on our cognitive functioning, our physical health, and on how we behave and interact with others,” she says.
Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.
Full Transcript: Mindset Matters
Matt Abrahams: Mind control was my favorite class in college. In it, we learned the tactics and theories others use to persuade us. Later, I learned that while other people can be influential in changing our perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. Some of the most effective influence actually originate from within ourselves.
Hello, I’m Matt Abrahams and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast. Today I am super excited to speak with Alia Crum. Alia is an assistant professor in the Stanford psychology department, where she is the principal investigator of the Stanford Mind and Body Lab.
Alia’s research explores how changes in subjective mindsets can alter objective reality through behavioral, psychological, and physiological means. Not only is Alia a great teacher, she is a much sought after speaker as well. Welcome Alia, thanks for being here.
Alia Crum: Thanks, Matt, it’s great to be here.
Matt Abrahams: Great, let’s go ahead and get started. To begin, what are mindsets and how do they influence our actions and ways of being?
Alia Crum: We define mindsets as core assumptions that we have about domains or categories of things that orient us to a particular set of expectations, explanations, and goals. So to put that a little bit more simply, mindsets are ways of viewing reality, that shape, what we expect, what we understand, and what we wanna do.
Matt Abrahams: Ahah! That sounds pretty all encompassing. When it comes to communication, stress and anxiety loom really large. Be it delivering a presentation, giving constructive feedback or answering questions. What insight does your work on stress provide to those of us suffering from communication anxiety and stress around speaking?
Alia Crum: Yeah, so … a lot of people have been studying stress and anxiety for over a century now from an academic standpoint, of course we’ve always experienced stress and anxiety to some degree. And by and large what they focus on is when it comes to the psychology of stress is what people call appraisal. So how do you appraise or think about the stressor and your ability to handle it. So, do you view a conflict or a challenging situation or an important presentation or an important meeting as a threat? Something that you don’t have the resources to overcome or a challenge. Something that’s difficult but you do have the resources to overcome. Those sort of appraisals have shown to be really important in shaping how we show up and how we perform in stressful situations. Our work on mindset goes a little bit deeper into the mind, into understanding not just sort of how we appraise a particular situation, but what are our core assumptions about the nature of stress itself.
The nature of a challenging situation or a demand in our life. That’s what we been focused on. And what we’ve found is that, if you kinda go back into those core assumptions, what you realize is that, most people have the mindset that stressful situations are inherently debilitating. They’re going to ultimately make us sick, make us struggle, make us crumble under pressure. And when you look at the truth about stress which is like most things very complicated, you realise that that is a simplified assumption. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s only one way of viewing stress and you start to realize that the true nature of stress is more complex.
And in fact, there’s a whole other side of stress that reveals to us that the body’s stress response, the mind stress response, was not designed to be debilitating, but instead designed to help us elevate our performance and behavior to meet the demands we’re facing. There’s a whole side of stress that shows that it can have enhancing qualities on our cognitive functioning, our physical health and on how we behave and interact with others. And so, our work is not necessarily to find out the truth of stress, what it is or what isn’t. But to look at how our mindsets, the core assumptions we make about it shape how we respond in stressful situations. And what we’ve shown is that if we can get people to open their minds to this notion that stress can be enhancing. That stress can help you rise to a new level of understanding, can deepen your connection with others, can make us even physiologically grow tougher and stronger. Having that focus shifts our attention and behaviors in ways that make that mindset more true.
Matt Abrahams: Wow, so simply by seeing what’s behind our stress beliefs and refocusing that, we can actually be empowered by our stress rather than being negatively affected by it. Is that what I heard you say?
Alia Crum: Exactly, and what’s interesting about that you know, you wonder … you might ask, well, where does this mindset that stress is debilitating come from? Not surprisingly, it comes from public health messaging and communication, warning us about the negative effects of stress. And that’s not malicious, that wasn’t meant to be malicious, it was meant to be helpful. That messaging was meant to warn us so that we could avoid or counteract these potentially negative effects of stress. The irony is though that messaging actually might shape mindsets, which actually makes those debilitating effects more likely. So, when I started working on this, wow, we realized what maybe we’re going about this all wrong.
How do we help people thrive and function under stress? It’s not to tell them that it’s bad for them and they should avoid it or rise above it or cope with it. It’s to help them realize that stress is natural, stress is inevitable when you’re living a life that’s connected with things you care about.
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Alia Crum: And learning how to embrace it, learning how to work with it is really what helps us thrive and grow and perform at our highest level.
Matt Abrahams: So let me put you on the spot. Let’s say I am somebody who has a big upcoming presentation or a meeting contribution and I’m getting nervous. What could I do in terms of my mindset to help me feel a little less nervous and perhaps even more excited about the opportunity?
Alia Crum: The steps to change your mindsets, at least as we teach, are as follows. The first is to acknowledge that you’re stressed, right? So, you have an upcoming meeting or a presentation that you’re given. It’s important, just acknowledge that you’re stressed, I’m stressed about this.
Matt Abrahams: Right?
Alia Crum: And also become … oh sorry go ahead.
Matt Abrahams: I was going to say that it’s normal to be stressed about it, most people would be.
Alia Crum: Exactly, notice that it’s normal. So acknowledging means yeah acknowledging without judgment, right? Knowing, just noticing what you’re feeling, right? How do you respond to stress? Is it hype getting hyperactive and sweaty palms or is it for me sometimes it’s like I have a big presentation or talk and I just get all of a sudden I’m exhausted.
Matt Abrahams: All right I perspire and blush. That’s my big thing. I start dripping with sweat.
Alia Crum: Yeah, so noticing the physiological reactions, noticing your emotional reactions, noticing your behavioral responses without judgment. That’s the first step. The second step is to welcome your stress. So why the heck would we welcome our stress? Well, it goes back to what I just talked about. We only stress about things that we care about. And so inherently underneath the stress is a true value, a true care, a true purpose. And we wouldn’t be in this situation if it wasn’t for something that mattered. And we wouldn’t be stressed about it if it wasn’t for something that mattered. So that step involves basically just asking yourself or completing the sentence, right? I’m stressed about x this upcoming presentation because I care about y and what is the y?
Matt Abrahams: Right, so it’s the goal that you’re trying to achieve or the change you’re trying to affect. That’s the y.
Alia Crum: Exactly. I care about it because I really feel like I have something important to say that could improve the lives of the people I’m communicating to or could change the way we’re doing things at this company or could alter fundamentally the relationship that I have with this loved one, right? These are the y’s, right? And you know, you got to go deeper in asking the why we call it sort of the downward arrows of y’s. Sometimes people are like, well, I’m stressed about this presentation because like, I don’t wanna screw it up.
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Alia Crum: Well, why don’t you wanna screw it up? Well I don’t wanna screw it up because I don’t wanna get fired, it’s well why don’t you wanna get fired?
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Alia Crum: I don’t wanna get fired because I feel like I have a contribution to make here because there’s something in here that I feel that I really have to offer. You go until it becomes a, it resonates at that positive level for you. That’s the second step. So, first acknowledge you’re stressed, second welcome your stress as being linked with something you care about, reconnect with what you care about. And the third is to use or utilize your stress in ways that help address the purpose, address that y rather than spending all your time, money, effort energy trying to avoid or get rid of the stress, right?
So you start to realize, you could go back to those behavioral or emotional responses you identified in step one, like you get flushed or you start getting jittery. I start kind of getting tired. It’s like, okay, well sometimes physiological responses you can’t change. But oftentimes the behavioral responses you can, right? So maybe you start snapping at your spouse or your kids or you start getting anxious and talking really fast and you realize, well, okay, well that’s not serving my purpose of the underlying value. Which is to really communicate this important thing that I have to share. So the third step is really utilizing your stress to address the core value or purpose, underline stress. So those are three steps that we share with people to help them to get into this mindset that stress can be enhancing. That the experience of stress can help us rise to a higher level of communication, and performance, and existence.
Matt Abrahams: That is really powerful and very specific and thank you and it avoids the checking out in the freaking out and allows you to harness the stress to support the goal that you’re trying to achieve. I think that’s fantastic. So let’s switch gears a little bit and in our roles as leaders, teachers, caregivers, and mentors, what are some things we can do to help those we work with to develop more adaptive mindsets?
Alia Crum: That’s such a good question. I’m a mother of a three year old. She just turned three.
Matt Abrahams: Congratulations.
Alia Crum: Thank you. Made it three years.
Matt Abrahams: Yes.
Alia Crum: It’s been such a joy and also a challenge. Raising a human is.
Matt Abrahams: I have two teenagers believe me, I know.
Alia Crum: Yeah, so certainly we have lots to talk about. And you start to realize, coming from the work that I’ve done up into this point that so much of parenting or leadership, if we equate to that revolves around trying to get people to do something.
Matt Abrahams: Yeah.
Alia Crum: To change their behavior. Oh Siggi that’s her name — you need to eat more vegetables, right? Or you need to go to bed at an earlier time or you need to stop crying, right? And it’s all focused around getting them to change their behavior. And what I’ve been trying to do, at least in applying my academic and intellectual research to my personal life is to realize that it’s ultimately not about the behavior. Maybe it is at the end of the day. But what if we could think about setting and not even changing but setting mindsets for them that help them adopt adaptive behaviors on their own accord, right? So what is the deeper mindset that exists in her mind or in anyone’s mind that is leading them to engage in a behavior that might not be the appropriate one or the useful one. And what would be a more adaptive mindset to have? So instead of trying to get my three year old to eat broccoli because she should. What can I do to shape her mindset about the nature of healthy foods? And then you realize, all these tactics hey, you need to eat your broccoli before you can have your ice cream are actually reinforcing the mindset that those are the less tasty, less appealing things to eat.
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Alia Crum: So what can I do in my communication as a parent or as a leader to help shape adaptive mindsets, and focus on that more than the kind of how do we persuade somebody to do something we want to do? Going back to the stress thing, this is really important because a lot of parents and a lot of leaders try to sort of shelter people away from stress. And I think we need to rethink that approach and help open our kids and our employees’ minds to the power of embracing stress, talking about it, embracing conflict, talking about it and so forth. Now, caveat there, of course that doesn’t mean purposely seeking out more stress, it doesn’t laying on.
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Alia Crum: Excess chores for your children to do or excess work. But given that we’re inevitably gonna experience stress anyways how can we embrace that? And how can we help shift mindsets about that first and foremost, rather than harping on their behaviors.
Matt Abrahams: Wow, that really helps me reframe some of the things I did when I was leading the teams I led in the corporate world. I definitely took that approach of my job is to shelter, protect, prioritize. And I see now on reflection given your insights that it would have been much better for me to engage them in discussions of how to better handle the stress prior, and look at the way we’re approaching it rather than just trying to deflect and defend them. So thank you for that. So you yourself Alia a very accomplished speaker, as evidenced by your TED talk, you have over four million views. People are really gravitating towards what you talk about. Can you share with us how you prepare, practice and present so successfully?
Alia Crum: Yeah, it’s interesting that with that TED talk I just knew I had something to say. I think why it’s been successful is that it came from a place of true, like authentic — this is really what I wanna say. And I really believe in this and I believe in the value that this has for people in their lives. The funny thing about that TED Talk is I went in to it and I was all prepared and I really worked on it hard and I got up on that stage and I was so nervous. I was just like, and for me, my physiological tendency with anxiety especially with communication is my voice starts to quiver and shake. So I could notice that it that was happening right, while I was was doing that and what got me through to the end was just to stay connected to the why that I was up there, why I was doing this. Connecting with the real sort of, the least power in the message that I felt I had to share. And you know it’s interesting because I think I was like devastated after I delivered. Oh my god I totally screwed it up I was like anxious this and that. But in the end, it’s okay and if some anxiety seeps through that’s also authentic and showing that I really cared about it. I really cared about doing a good job.
Matt Abrahams: Yeah, as somebody who has done talks like that and has coached many people who’ve done talks like that you did a fantastic job and you’re right you come off as very authentic. You certainly come off as confident and it sounds like putting your purpose first and knowing that you had something of value to contribute to the audience helped you get through that. And it comes through for sure. So I encourage everybody to take a look at it, it really reinforces many of the points that we’ve talked about. So before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I asked everyone who joins me. Are you up for that?
Alia Crum: Of course, yeah.
Matt Abrahams: All right. So question number one. If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be?
Alia Crum: Be yourself, your best self.
Matt Abrahams: Oh I like that, it’s very empowering and encouraging. Do you find that a mantra like that helps you?
Alia Crum: I do, I actually, so my father taught, he was an Aikido master. He taught meditation and then he became a public speaker and communicator on conflict and peace performance. And what I do is actually what he teaches which is a three step process of getting centered and present, connecting to your highest value and your sort of qualities that you want to exhibit. And then the third piece is being open to the mystery, which is, yes you have a purpose you have a why, here you have a need to present and connect and share something, but also you have so much to learn. And there’s so much to be gained from just being open in a situation. So it’s that balance between being present, being powerful and having a sense of confidence and conviction, but also being open to the mystery.
Matt Abrahams: That’s cool. So many people think of communication in particular is one way they’re communicating with the audience, but there’s a lot that you can learn and being open is fantastic. But let me move on to question number two. So question two, who is a communicator that you admire and why?
Alia Crum: Well, I’d have to say, my dad, I mentioned that a lot of what I employ in my life to be a good communicator, be as high functioning as I can, it comes from my upbringing and learning from him around centering and working with energy and connecting to one’s highest purpose. And he was a masterful communicator. He’s just a great storyteller. But I think what made him most powerful was just how authentic he was and how he really came from a place of wanting to help people be their best selves and so I really, I’ve learned a lot from him and admire him.
Matt Abrahams: It sounds to me like energy, presence, authenticity, and openness are all characteristics of your father in his communication approach. And you can certainly see that in the way you approach your communication. Let me ask you question number three. What are the three essential ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?
Alia Crum: Be present, be yourself. But be your best self, right? Connect to really what matters, really what you care about. What are you actually trying to do here? That’s of value, right? That’s what I mean by being your best self. And the third piece is be open. We’re great communicators only to the extent that we’re really able to listen and learn and be flexible in the way we think and our assumptions and abilities to communicate. I think those three ingredients are key and perhaps they’re everything.
Matt Abrahams: I would agree. I think those three ingredients sum up nicely everything people need to do to not just be a good communicator, but just to be a good person as well. Well, Alia, thank you so much. I am completely fascinated by the work you do and the impact that it can have. You’re clearly very passionate and articulate about it. Thank you so much for sharing specific things we can all do to adopt and support positive mindsets. Thank you.
Alia Crum: Thanks, Matt. It was so fun and I look forward to talking more about all of this.
Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Me too. Thank you for listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast. A production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. To learn more, go to gsb.stanford.edu. Please download other episodes wherever you find your podcasts.
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