The Other Side of Stress

Adversity can make you stronger

April 19, 2020

This week, I’ve asked my friend Alia Crum to share her tip of the week. Be well.

Last month, I got the email I was dreading: my toddler’s daycare was closing because of the pandemic. How was I going to teach two classes and run a research lab while caring for my 18-month-old daughter?

In short order, more people were getting sick and dying, much of the country went into lockdown, and friends lost their jobs. I broke down and cried.

Then I took a deep breath and focused. I’ve spent the last 15 years studying stress, and this is what I’ve learned. Although stress can have negative effects, research shows that even severe stress can make you stronger—if you adopt the right mindset. How do you do that?

First, acknowledge your stress. This means neither catastrophizing nor downplaying the stress as it impacts you personally. Others may be suffering worse, but that knowledge doesn’t change your situation. For me, that meant I recognized that sheltering in place with my baby—with parks closed and no babysitters to help me out—was a real and significant hardship.

Second, own your stress. Welcome what you’re feeling to help you connect it to your values: you feel stressed because it relates to something deeply important to you. Personally, I was stressed about Covid-19 because of its effect on the two things I value most: conducting research that can improve the lives of others and raising a happy, healthy child.

Third, use your stress. Channel your time and energy into tasks that are aligned with your values. In this case, I recognized that the crisis provided fresh opportunities: a chance to apply my research in new ways and precious time to connect more deeply with my child.

Don’t stress about stress. Denying it or worrying about its negative effects is counterproductive.

Do adopt a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset and help the young people in your life do the same.

To practice, everyone can use Stanford SPARQ’s toolkit, which guides you through this three-step approach in a series of videos.

With resilience and gratitude,

About the author

Alia J. Crum is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University and directs the Stanford Mind & Body Lab.