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    Rethinking Stress: Alia Crum's Stress Mindset

      |  Dec 11, 2023

    Alia Crum is a Stanford psychologist who is obsessed with stress, and not in the way you might think. While stress has been proven to negatively impact both our physiological and psychological systems in the short and long term, Dr. Crum is focused on the positive effects of stress, and how to leverage them to meet challenges and overcome obstacles. In fact, according to Dr. Strum, stress can be a positive force in your life. You just have to know how to use it.

    Dr. Crum’s Three Step Approach to Stress

    Step #1: See it

    The first step in making stress work for you is to recognize that you’re stressed in the first place. When we’re stressed, hormones like adrenaline and cortisol give us the ability to hyperfocus on our challenges, but make it difficult to step back and acknowledge the stress a given situation is putting us through. 

    In a study by neuroscientist Matt Lieberman, participants were shown negative emotional images while undergoing a brain scan. The study found that when patients labeled the emotion the images invoked, neural activity shifted from the amygdala region (where we process emotions) to the prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functioning. When we acknowledge a negative emotion like stress, we’re better able to see it objectively, and use it to our advantage.

    Step #2: Own It

    What one person considers a “stressful situation” may not be stressful for someone else. While there are stressful situations that could be considered universal (like the death of a loved one, or losing your job), we typically experience stress when faced with a challenge we personally care about. 

    Think about the last time you were stressed. Maybe you had to present a large project at work, prep for a special event, or work through a tough parenting moment with your kids. These moments are bound to be tough, but only because you care about their impact on your life. Recognizing these moments as challenges to overcome, connected to your larger purpose in life, can actually give your brain the tools it needs to meet them successfully. 

    Science supports it. In a 2017 study led by Dr. Crum, researchers discovered that participants who viewed an emotionally distressing situation as a challenge, rather than a debilitating scenario had greater cognitive flexibility and were able to more easily notice positive stimuli.

    Step #3: Use It

    As terrible as stress feels, it does have a purpose. The body evolved the stress response to heighten our focus, increase our energy, and help us push past our preconceived limits to meet challenges. That’s why some people claim to work better under stress, and others discover new skills or positive attributes about themselves when faced with a stressful situation.

    In the long term, stress can cause inflammation, insomnia, and other chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease. But when properly managed, the body actually benefits from stress. Studies show that stress hormones release chemicals that rebuild cells, synthesize proteins, and improve immunity. In the long term, dealing with and overcoming stress can improve mental fortitude, strengthen social bonds, and heighten our own sense of meaning. So the next time you’re stressed, try seeing it as an opportunity to grow. You might be surprised by what you find on the other side. 

    This post was reviewed for clinical accuracy by Dr. Anant Vinjamoori, MD.