Stress Beliefs Might Matter for Stress Response

People seem to have real differences in how we react to the stressful situations we inevitably encounter in everyday life. Given that stress is intertwined with mental and physical health, figuring out what interventions might help people respond to stress more constructively is a key topic for psychology researchers.

A new study in Annals of Behavioral Medicine suggests the beliefs we hold about stress are a significant factor in how we cope with stress emotionally. If you believe that stress is something that can be dealt with in a positive way, that belief might become self-fulfilling to some extent.

In the study, researchers in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands tracked 98 college students for 10 days. The students made daily diary entries in which they recorded stressful events in their lives along with their current mood.

Across the entire group of students, stress tended to be associated with negative mood, which isn’t so surprising. Interestingly, however, the effect was greater for students who had high levels of negative beliefs about stress.

In other words, students who at the outset of the study viewed stress as an especially destructive force tended to subsequently take a greater emotional hit when they ran into stressful situations.

The main question hovering over these results has to do with cause-and-effect. Specifically, the experimental design didn’t decisively untangle whether negative stress beliefs make people more susceptible to stress, or whether people who are already more susceptible to stress develop negative stress beliefs.

Still, the results are promising insofar as they show people who see stress in more negative terms at one point in time react more strongly to stress in subsequent weeks. The implication is that learning more about the beliefs people hold about stress has the potential to teach us about why individuals respond to stress differently. In practical terms, stress beliefs might turn out to be a promising target for therapeutic interventions, which is good news for anyone who has to manage stress in everyday life – which is to say, pretty much everyone!