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How You View Stress Matters – And How To Change Your View

In an earlier article of this series exploring my Stress Resilience Blueprint, I compared feeling stressed to struggling in quicksand. I also presented a model, known as the Human Performance Curve (shown graphically below), that sets up a helpful way to think about what's going on in stressful situations. Are we in some sense trying too hard and heading down the slope, making things worse not better?

human performance curve yerkes-dodson law

Both the quicksand metaphor and the HPC model are examples of reframes. Reframing is the art and science of shifting the way you think about a problem or challenge, in a way that opens up new ways forward.

Reframing is an important tool in coaching because it turns what seems like an insoluble problem into something much more tractable. Reframing works by broadening your perspective so that you see more of the picture, or perhaps by changing the focus from an insoluble problem (e.g. how to avoid or suppress difficult emotions) to a different but related problem (e.g. how to reduce physiological arousal).

Reframing is a way of shifting mindset. In the Stress Resilience Blueprint (my manifesto of what you need for effective stress management) mindset is one of the three key areas: approaching the project of stress management with the right mindset is critical to success. Mindset is a set of beliefs, assumptions and attitudes that condition how you see something and what you do about it. How you view stress conditions first, how your body reacts to it, and second, your coping strategy.

The Human Performance Curve works because it gives you a new view of the problem. The real problem is not the fact that you feel stressed, but trying too hard when you're already to the right of peak performance.

Another reframe inherent in the Stress Resilience Blueprint is the idea that stress is a mind-body problem requiring a mind-body solution. The mind-body connection is the idea that your subjective experience is reflected in the physiological processes in your body, and vice versa. It's not just in your head.

But there's something more fundamental than that even. Take the proposition that I've been making repeatedly: stress resilience is a skill-set that can be learned and developed, with the right tools and the right training. In a way, behind this statement is the same reframe:

VIEW 1: "stress is an apparently intractable problem"

- is transformed into -

VIEW 2: "I can change my experience of stress by applying myself to learning new skills".

It helps because it offers new hope, or a new sense of possibility. That's assuming you see yourself in a certain way, which brings us to the important topic of growth mindset – more on this in this article on growth mindset vs fixed mindset in stress management.

How To Reframe Your View of Stress

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What have you been implicitly seeing as the problem with stress? Have you been trying to simply get rid of or avoid something?
  • Is your goal actually possible?
  • Do you know clearly what you want to experience instead of stress or anxiety?
  • If you're clear on what outcome you want – do you know how to go about getting there? What skills and resources do you need?
  • Do you know anyone with these skills and resources? What would this person do in your position?
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