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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

Mindset & Well-Being: What if Aliens Saw Me Weightlifting?

What if I told you it isn't stress itself that is harming you, it's how you think about stress?

I'll explain, but first I’d like to take you on a journey of galactic proportions. As you read your way through this adventure try and think of it as exercising the imaginative muscles in your brain. That is, bear with me as I make up some goofy stuff. Oh, and also stick around through the whole blog – it might get a bit dark in the middle but I promise some light at the end. 😊

Imagine there’s a unique race of aliens called Buffatrons. They look a lot like us and have a similar biology. However, in one big way we differ. We need to exercise to achieve peak physical health. Buffatrons actually gain physical health the more sedentary they are. In fact, if they exercise it causes them harm. I’m fairly certain my Great Dane, Lily, thinks she’s a Buffatron….but I digress.

Now, let’s say a Buffatronian ship, on a galaxy-wide exploration trip, lands in the parking lot of my gym. From inside the ship emerges a muscle-bound, Herculean looking creature, slowly moving in a mind-powered wheelchair, who scans the scene and asks me, “What is ‘gym’?” I respond, “Follow me and I’ll show you!” Clearly I’m undisturbed by these insane events…but I digress again.

We walk into the gym and over the next hour my new Buffatronian friend watches me painfully exert myself in a regimented weight lifting program. At first he’s appalled, then saddened, and finally finds the whole thing so utterly ridiculous he can only laugh. Why would anyone intentionally subject themselves to the abhorrence known as exercise when everyone clearly knows exercise can kill you?!? He quickly retreats back to his ship (but not so quick as to exert himself) and leaves the silly planet we call Earth. As he looks over his explorer’s chart he clearly marks Earth as, “Avoid At All Costs.”

Just another day at the gym.

This fantastical tale certainly sounds outlandish. Replace “working out” with stress and negative emotion and I think you’ll see, many of us, much of the time, hold a Buffatronian mindset about stress and negative emotion. “Avoid At All Costs.” The problem is, that mindset is causing us more harm than good.

First off, stress and negative emotion are unavoidable. You have a mind with wishes and desires and needs. Not every wish can come true, not every desire is rewarded, and not every need can be met all the time, every time. Disappointment is inevitable and it causes stress. Not to mention, all of us have and will again experience loss.

Furthermore, the very action of attempting to avoid stress is stressful! It take a lot of work to convince the human brain that it isn’t a human brain! And in the end, you can’t win that game. Which sucks. And feels crappy. Resulting in stress. Feedback loop from hell anyone?

And here’s the kicker, thinking about stress as something bad to be avoided might actually be killing us. In 1998 researchers surveyed over 30,000 adults to find out how much stress they had experienced over the previous year and how they thought and felt about their stress. Eight years later they went back to see who was still alive. (A bit morbid, I know.) What they discovered was astonishing – those with the highest levels of stress had a 43% higher rate of death…….but only if they believed the stress they experienced was bad. Put another way, the people who had high stress but didn’t view stress as a necessarily bad thing, experienced no higher rate of death long term.

The difference was mindset.

Research by people like Dr. Alia Crum and Dr. Kelly McGonigal have taught us that it isn’t stress, per say, that cause all the psychological and physical distress we want to avoid, it’s how we think about the inevitable stresses and negative experiences in our lives that make all the difference. Here’s the good news – our mindset about stress and negative emotion isn’t fixed! As Dr. McGonigal shares in her incredible TED talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” we can actually learn to change our mindset about stress and enjoy all the psychological and physical benefits that result.

We can actually learn to change our mindset about stress and enjoy all the psychological and physical benefits that result.

How? Here are two simple tools everyone can try.

1) Reframe Your Entry Point: In one of my favorite studies of all time, Alison Wood Brooks, a researcher from Harvard Business School, divided participants into three groups. Each group would be singing “Don’t Stop Believing” into a machine that would test their singing for accuracy. All in front of stone-faced researchers they just met. One group would just sing the song, a second group would say “I’m nervous” out loud and then sing the song, and the final group would say “I’m excited” out loud and then sing the song. The results? The participants who said they were excited (even if they didn’t believe it) were almost 20% more accurate than those who said they were nervous.

So the next time you’re gearing up for something stressful, say to yourself out loud, “I’m excited.” You’ll still have a stress response but you’ll likely perform better.

2) Reframe Your Stress Response: Physiologically, the response to stress and excitement are very similar. They differ in two key ways – in excitement the heart profile is healthier and the learning centers of the brain are on high alert. That’s why Dr. McGonigal suggests we make stress our friend.

Every human being has 7 uncontrollable, unconscious micro expressions their face makes as an automatic response to certain emotional states. In fact, they happen before we are even consciously aware of the emotion we are experiencing. One such expression is fear. When we are afraid our eyes and mouth open wide and we take in a sudden breath. Why? Because our brain is preparing our body to see as much as possible and take in extra oxygen as it prepares for fight or flight. That is, our brain’s response to the negative experience benefits us.

What if we could train our conscious mind to think of all stress this way? We can!

The next time you feel stressed or something bad happens to you first, notice it’s happening. Second, identify what is happening (increased heart rate, sweating, feeling hot….whatever it might be). Finally, think about how these things might be benefiting you. For example, you might think of your increased heart rate as sending more blood to your brain so you can think about your presentation more clearly. It’s the subtle difference between thinking of stress as suffering versus thinking of it as information.

Want a more intensive, evidence based training on reframing stress? Check out this free “ReThink Stress” intervention program out of Stanford University.

Neither of these Jedi mind tricks will come easy or quick. “Practice you must, master you will,” says Yoda. With time they will become more natural and automatic, however, and the results will quite literally change how your brain and body experience stress. And heck, they may save your life. You’re welcome.

What stresses you out and how will you reframe it?

- Written by Josh Vaisman

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