Several people sat in a room waiting to participate in a very stressful and career-defining job interview. The interviewers would purposefully be giving negative feedback, which the interviewees were expected to act on immediately. While they waited, the interviewees were shown at random one of two different videos: The first video was a 3-minute talk on the debilitating effects of stress and the harm stress hormones can have on health and performance. The other video was a 3-minute talk on the helpful aspects of stress and how stress can lead to growth and enhanced performance.
Saliva was collected from participants to test hormones associated with stress. All participants showed an increase in Cortisol, the classic stress hormone we are all warned about. Yet the participants who watched the “stress can be good” video showed an increase in Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA).
DHEA is a neurosteroid that is associated with the positive kind of stress. When DHEA levels are higher than Cortisol, stress results in greater focus and problem solving, enhanced resilience and, in college students, higher GPA’s.
When this result was found in the group of interviewees, the question then became: What was it that increased DHEA in the interviewees, which in turn caused their performances to be better under stress? The answer: Mindset. Mindset is an adopted theory of how something works. The 3-minute video the individuals in this group watched on why stress can be more helpful than harmful caused them to adopt that theory and in turn approach the job interview with a growth mindset. It was this mindset that allowed them to perform well under pressure.
The above is a study conducted by Alia Crum and discussed in Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Upside of Stress. (For a quick summary on that section of her book, read the following blog or watch her TED talk.)
This study demonstrates that mindset has a commanding effect on the chemical cocktail in the body, chemicals which influence one’s performance and overall satisfaction in life. It also shows that mindset can be trained, controlled, and used as a powerful tool.
More Than One Kind of Stress
Along with DHEA, another unsung hero of stress is the “tend and befriend” response. When stress occurs in any form, the body sends signals (by way of hormones) to not only regulate after being activated by the stressor but to grow from the experience. One of these hormones is Oxytocin, which is typically associated with love, joy and social connections. It is released during stress to encourage reaching out to one’s social network and other support systems as a method of recovering and in fact, improving from stress. Biologically, these hormonal “signals” embolden us to not only seek support through community but to learn from the experience, increase our levels of courage, and show compassion to others. All these items strengthen sustainability and growth from adversity, which is within the definition of resilience.
For resilience to be the result of stress, there must be an awareness and understanding that this process does in fact exist and post-traumatic growth is possible. This is what is meant by “a theory about how something works”, or mindset.
Emotional Intelligence is a Sign of Resilience
One of the expressions of resilience is a high level of emotional intelligence. TTI Success Insights, a company that specializes in business, individual and managerial productivity, lists 10 Qualities of Emotionally Intelligent People.
They don’t strive for perfection.
Balancing work and life is natural.
They embrace change.
They don’t dwell on the past.
They’re good judges of character.
They neutralize negative self-talk.
They give and expect nothing in return.
They are difficult to offend.
Above all, they’re empathetic people.
The above qualities are typically thriving in those who are first entering a career in law enforcement. Over time, stress of the job (internally and externally) can dull the knife of emotional intelligence and these qualities can be lost.
A decrease in emotional intelligence is typically followed by an increase in stress-based physical and mental health problems.
There is a switch that must be flipped in the brain in order for stress to improve emotional intelligence instead of deplete it. That switch is the perception of stress, which again, is mindset.
How do we flip the “mindset switch”? Training.
The first step in training a growth mindset is welcoming stress knowing we have the skills to process it and transform it into growth. The next step is doing the training required to refine those skills and then putting those skills into action.
Training Necessary Skills for Transforming Stress into Growth:
1. Mental Messages:
Processing stress occurs through changing the mindset about stress. This can be accomplished through a practice of self-talk or “Cognitive Declarations” (CD) as we call it in Yoga For First Responders. Notice when a thought such as “this sucks”is depleting an ability to be resilient, and change it to a positive mental message that is rooted in the present moment and action oriented, such as “I am learning from this”. When the depleting thought arises, immediately switch it to the positive message of growth, repeating it to yourself at least five times. Even if you don’t feel it, your subconscious mind has received the message. Try starting off the day by giving yourself a clear mental message. When you wake up, or are in the shower, repeat to yourself 10 times, “Today I do my best.” For more on how this technique improves combat performance, watch Captain Tom Chaby’s TED talk.
2. Move the Body:
Processing stress hormones happens as the body moves. Whether you go to the gym, ride a bike or practice yoga, try approaching the exercise as neurological fitness for the purpose of processing stress rather than building muscle. (The muscle will be built anyway.) Add a mental message as you move, such as “I release what I don’t need”.
3. Control the Breath:
Watch your body when stress occurs. Notice if you can feel the hormones signaling your body to increase heart rate, blood pressure and rate of respiration. Once you notice these changes, your body becomes your laboratory. For one minute, take a deep inhale through your nose and expand the entire torso. Pause briefly at the end of the inhale. Exhale slowly with a controlled “sh” sound so the exhale lasts as long as possible. Pause briefly at the end of the exhale. Set a timer for at least one minute, three minutes if you have time. At the end of the exercise, notice if there were any physiological changes from what you had observed before. Even if no changes had occurred, your mind was just given space from the stressor. As Victor Frankl said in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, it is in the space where we can make the choice of how to respond.*
4. Train Proactively:
Building resilience means proactively training on how you look at and process stress, and not merely waiting until after a stressful event occurs. Use the first three points (mental messages, move the body, control the breath) when you are feeling good and feeling strong so that these tools are there for you when times are tough.
5. Proper Recovery:
Building resilience also requires consistent and effective recovery. Any high performance athlete spends a dedicated amount of time on true, intentional recovery in order to meet the demands of his or her job. Recovery is not watching TV, unless it is intentionally turning on the TV to a show that really makes you laugh for 30 minutes, and then intentionally turning off the TV. Try recovering by:
Reading fiction for fun
6. Be Productive with Stress:
Processing stress and building resilience mean that you have mastered your mind and nervous system to effectively be with high stress and self-regulate afterward. The next time a stressor occurs, even a small one like sitting in traffic, before you react out of habit ask yourself, “How would the person I want to be approach this stressful situation?” and then try responding in that way.
Self-regulation after stress will naturally happen when we know how to be in an activated state and with high stress.
Breath work and proactive mindset exercises allow you turn the debilitating type of stress into the growth type of stress in real time, and regulate back to “rest and digest” after the fact.
Use this video for a short, daily and proactive training exercise that incorporates all the skills listed above.
Things will still be hard. Decisions will still appear unfair. The inherent qualities of the job won’t change. By training to use stress as a tool, you will be better because of it.
*“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor Frankl
By Olivia Mead
Originally written for Blue H.E.L.P
Olivia Mead is Founder and CEO of YogaShield® Yoga For First Responders® (YFFR). YFFR trains public safety to process stress, build resilience and enhance performance through the practice of yoga.