Do mindsets matter?
We’re at a turning point in medical history where research is uncovering the mysteries of our mind-body connection. So, do mindsets matter? Can our thoughts and beliefs trigger physiological responses in our bodies? Are there such things as belief benefits? Although multiple interacting factors affect health and disease (genetics, trauma, socioeconomic environment, etc.), your beliefs matter, too. If you know me, have attended my talks, read my books or followed my blog, you’re familiar with my favorite quote: “You are what you believe you are!” My second favorite is Henry Ford’s famous quote: “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” Science is turning up proof for this. I recently listened to the Huberman Lab Podcast featuring Dr. Alia Crum, a tenured professor of psychology at Stanford University and Founder and Director of the Stanford Mind and Body Lab. Dr. Crum spoke about “the Science of Mindsets for Health and Performance” and how what we think and believe shapes how our physiology and how our biology reacts to things like food, stress and exercise.
Take a moment to think about that. What you believe about the nutritional value of your food changes the way it impacts your body to a remarkable degree. The same is also true about exercise, stress and even medication. Recent work by Dr. Crum, one of the leading-edge researchers on the mind-body interface, shows that what we believe about the side effects of treatments and how well they work has a profound impact on their effectiveness. Dr. Crum defines mindsets (and there are many) as “core beliefs or assumptions we have about certain things that orient us toward expectations and goals.” In simpler words, mindsets are an assumption you make about a particular thing, for example, stress. How do you view stress? Do you see it as a threat and something bad for you? Or do you see stress as a challenge, something that you can leverage to make you better or improve your performance? Your answer has a significant impact on your expectations, motivation and feelings.
Everyone faces stress. We can’t avoid it. The current public health message seems to be that stress is bad and has damaging consequences. This isn’t completely true, however. “The experience of encountering adversity and challenges in our goal-related efforts doesn’t have to be debilitating,” says Dr. Crum. Studies have shown that stress narrows our focus, increases our attention and speeds up our ability to process information. And anyone who lifts weights understands that placing stress on our muscles makes them stronger. Dr. Crum points out that the true nature of stress is a paradox. It’s manifold and complex, and many things can happen. So, what’s the role of mindset in shaping our stress response? It seems to boil down to how you view the stressor. Is it a threat or a challenge? At your core level, do you view stress as something terrible that will kill us or as something natural that’s going to enhance us? That’s the critical question when it comes to your mindset about stress. Can you change your mindset about stress? Dr. Crum believes you can.
Her team showed test subjects two video clips about stress; one conformed to the public message and one showed empowering images of how top athletes used stress to increase their performance when it mattered most. Put simply, people watched a video that said stress will crush you or kill you and one that showed that stress can grow you and bring out your best. One group watched the stress-will-crush you video; one didn’t watch any videos; and the third watched the stress-will-enhance you video. After one week of watching the videos, the people who watched the enhancing video reported fewer backaches, fewer headaches and increased work performance than those who watched the debilitating videos. Dr. Crum and her team also studied Navy SEALs and their relationship to stress. In every population they had studied previously, the average view of stress was negative. SEALs, however, especially those in BUD/S, primarily had a mindset that believed stress enhanced their performance. Those with a positive view of stress and an enhancing mindset were more likely to complete training and graduate. They also had faster times on the obstacle course and were rated by their peers more positively.
Dr. Crum ran a study involving milkshakes that aimed to examine whether our beliefs affect how our bodies respond. In the study, Dr. Crum brought people into her lab under the pretext of tasting milkshakes that would be good for them. The same subjects tasted identical milkshakes at different times. On one occasion, they were told that this was a high-calorie, luxurious “indulgence” type of milkshake with lots of fat and sugar. The other time they were told that they were drinking a low-fat, healthy and sensible diet shake. In reality, it was exactly the same milkshake each time. The team monitored their bodies’ gut peptide responses, particularly the hormone ghrelin, which is often called the hunger hormone. Ghrelin rises when you’re hungry and drops when you’re satiated. They found that when the subjects “thought” they were drinking the high-calory, indulgence shake, their ghrelin levels dropped threefold compared to when they consumed the sensible shake. In other words, their bodies responded as if they had consumed more food than they had. What was surprising was that the results showed that when the subjects thought they were eating sensibly, they were left feeling hungry. Her conclusion was somewhat counter-intuitive; if you’re trying to maintain or lose weight, it’s better to believe that you’re eating indulgently.
Ellen Langer, Harvard professor of psychology, once told Dr. Crum, who was an elite athlete, that the “benefit of exercise is just a placebo.” Obviously, this isn’t true, but she wanted to encourage Dr. Crum to take a deeper look at belief benefits. This inspired Dr. Crum to find a group of hotel-housekeepers who worked hard all day long but didn’t see this as exercise. When asked how much exercise they thought they were getting, one-third of them said “zero,” while others gave themselves a three on a scale of ten. It’s clear that their mindset did not see work as exercise. The team then divided them into two groups and told one group that their work was, in fact, good exercise, explaining the benefits they got from their labor. Before the study, the team measured the groups’ physiological factors, such as body fat, weight and blood pressure. “Four weeks later, we measured them again and found that the group who were told their work had exercise benefits, had lost weight, decreased their systolic blood pressure by an average of ten points and reported that they felt better about their bodies and their work,” according to Dr. Crum.
Food allergy study
Dr. Crum is also working to instill positive mindsets in people taking medicine or undergoing treatments, such as kids who were being treated for food allergies, like peanuts. As the kids take gradually increasing doses of whatever food they’re allergic to, they experience all kinds of unpleasant symptoms and side effects, like vomiting, itchy eyes and mouths. Dr. Crum and her team attempted to reframe the mindsets about symptoms and side effects. She divided kids getting treatments into a group that was given the standard message that you just have to endure these negative symptoms and side effects, and a group that was told that these were good because they offered positive proof that the treatment was working, and their bodies were getting stronger. “We found that the individuals who were told that these symptoms and side effects were positive reported less anxiety and had better outcomes from the treatment,” according to Dr. Crum.
Freak out or check out
Having a stress-is-enhancing mindset doesn’t mean you have to like the stressor. It simply means that the challenge and adversity we experience with stress can enhance our health, cognition, wellbeing and performance. How does it work? It works through several pathways. It fundamentally changes what we’re motivated to do. If you’re stressed out about something and think stress is bad, where’s your motivation to do something about it? You may even get stressed about the stress itself. Typically, there are two reactions. You either freak out and try to do everything you can to make sure this doesn’t affect you negatively. Or you simply “check out,” i.e., you go into denial, which can lead to depression. If you have a stress-is-enhancing mindset, you look to see what you can learn from the experience, how you can leverage stress to grow, become stronger, fitter, healthier, etc. There are several studies that show that a stress-is-enhancing mindset can affect you physiologically. We’ve seen that people with a stress-is-enhancing mindset have more moderate cortisol responses and higher levels of DHA (an anabolic hormone present in men and women) in response to stress.
Adopting a stress-is-enhancing mindset
There are three steps to this. First, you must acknowledge that you’re stressed, own it and embrace it. Remember the military expression “embrace the suck?” Second, you must welcome it. Why? Well, because that stress is occurring because you care about something. Third, you must utilize the stress response to achieve the thing or goals you care about. You should not spend your time, effort and money fighting to get rid of the stress. It’s not the stress itself. It’s what you think about stress and how you respond to it. We see lots of information about how stress can either crush you or help you. Research tells us that we can re-program our minds, so given a choice (debilitating or enhancing), why in the world would you choose to believe stress will debilitate you? So, yes, mindsets do matter. Perhaps now more than ever before. So, you may want to ask yourself: “what is my mindset about ______(you fill in the blank), and is it helping or hindering me?”