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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.

  1.  They don’t strive for perfection. 

  2.  Balancing work and life is natural. 

  3.  They embrace change.

  4.  They don’t dwell on the past.

  5.  They’re good judges of character. 

  6.  They neutralize negative self-talk. 

  7.  They give and expect nothing in return.

  8.  They’re self-motivated. 

  9.  They are difficult to offend.

  10.  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. Not