How our stress mindset changes our perception and response to stress

Stress, the experience or expectation of setbacks in our attempts to achieve goals, is inevitable in professional life. It has both positive and negative effects. Recent research by Alia Crum et al. (2023) shows that we can influence how stress affects us. The key lies in our stress mindset.

What is a metacognitive approach?

Unlike traditional stress management programs that focus primarily on reducing stressful experiences, the metacognitive approach focuses on the way we think about stress. What is unique about this approach is the concept of stress mindsets.

Stress mindsets: a key concept

A stress mindset is the belief that someone has about the consequences of stress. These beliefs can be divided into two main categories:

  1. Stress-is-enhancing mindset: People with this mindset see stress as a positive force in their lives. They believe that stress helps them perform better, grow and can even improve their health and well-being. This mindset often leads to improved cognitive functions and, in some cases, more adaptive physiological responses.
  2. Stress-is-debilitating mindset: In this category, people believe that stress has negative consequences on their health, well-being and performance. This mindset can lead to reduced well-being and can amplify the potentially negative consequences of stress.

The impact of stress mindsets

Crum and her team have shown that these stress mindsets are not just passive beliefs. They actively influence how we respond to stressful situations, which then impacts our physical health, interpersonal relationships and work performance. In other words, our mindset about stress can itself become a stressor or a source of resilience and growth.

Through these insights, the metacognitive approach offers more effective strategies for dealing with stress, by helping us more consciously choose which mindset to adopt in different situations.

Three studies

Alia Crum's team conducted three randomized experiments to test the effectiveness of the metacognitive approach.

  • In the first experiment, employees of a large financial company were randomly divided into two groups. One group received training aimed at reframing their view of stress, while the control group received no specific intervention. The results showed that those who completed the training developed a more positive outlook on stress
  • The second experiment built on this by evaluating participants on physical health parameters such as blood pressure and heart rate. After undergoing a similar training as in the first experiment, participants in the intervention group showed improvements in these physical indicators compared to the control group.
  • The third experiment focused on interpersonal skills. The employees who followed the metacognitive approach reported improvements in their communication skills and their ability to work effectively with colleagues. These improvements proved to be durable, as they were still noticeable several weeks after the intervention.

These experiments show that the metacognitive approach can have important benefits not only on stress perception but also on physical health and interpersonal relationships.

What does this mean for organizations?

These findings are relevant for organizations that strive for a healthier work environment. By teaching employees to adjust their stress mindset, the metacognitive approach can provide a more efficient way to manage stress. It can be deployed both online and offline, making it a flexible option for companies of different sizes and industries.


The metacognitive approach not only changes the way we view stress, but also how we deal with it. It encourages us to consciously adopt a growth mindset about stress, allowing us to be more adaptive in different situations. Although further research is needed to investigate the long-term effects, this approach offers a promising step toward a healthier and more productive work environment.