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Athletes use stress to boost their wellbeing – here’s how you can too

Three female sprints crossing the finish line.
Athletes who saw stressful situations as a challenge had better mental health. Juice Dash/ Shutterstock

Almost everyone wants to know how to reduce stress. After all, stress can have many negative effects on both our physical and mental health. An increasing body of evidence shows that changing the way we think about stress might actually better help us manage it. Not only can this improve our wellbeing, including our mental health, it can also make us better able to thrive in stressful situations in the future. And the way you can learn to do this is from athletes.

The way a person thinks about stress in general is called a “stress mindset”. Some people see stress as something negative, and think that it should be avoided completely. Others see stress more positively, and think it will have benefits for their health, performance or productivity.

Studies in the US and Australia have shown that people who see stress as enhancing experience greater productivity at work, better mental health and academic performance. There are also links between a positive mindset and how people view stressful situations – such as seeing difficult tasks as a challenge instead of a threat.

But until now, little was known about stress mindsets and athletes. Given that athletes encounter stressful situations every day that they often have little control over – such as from the media, or during a race or match – our research team wanted to investigate how their beliefs about stress impact their mental health.

We collected data from over 400 athletes from around the world. Participants came from a variety of different sports and ranged from recreational to elite athletes. We used questionnaires to measure athletes’ stress mindset and their mental health. We then analysed how these two related to each other, alongside whether age, gender and competitive level factored in.

Four blocks with letters on them. A person's hand is turning one block over, so that the word the blocks spell can read either 'wellness' or 'stress'.
Every person has a different stress mindset. Dmitry Demidovich/ Shutterstock

We found that athletes who saw stress as positive or enhancing were more likely to see stressful situations as a challenge. This was also linked to better mental health on average, including more energy and fewer depressive symptoms.

Of course, chronic stress is linked to a whole host of negative health conditions so it’s important not to depict stress as only being a positive thing. But if we highlight that responses to acute stress can actually be helpful, athletes are more likely to see better performance and mental health. For example, if an athlete sees the stress of competition as useful, it might lead them to have better focus and motivation to succeed.

Stress mindset

Of course, athletes are a bit different from the average person. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also learn to change our own stress mindset to boost our mental health. Studies have shown that in the average person, watching videos that explain the positive effects of stress and why stress happens can help them to change their stress mindset.

Studies have even shown that watching such videos can help people perform better when faced with a mock job interview and have better focus. Another study has also shown that thinking about your responses to stress as a positive (rather than negative) reaction can improve wellbeing and academic performance. This might involve a person thinking of their nervous stomach as a sign that they’re excited instead of stressed.

The best way to put this into practice is to visualise your stressful situation and how you will respond to it, similar to what an athlete might do. For example, imagine you’re about to give a presentation at work. First, acknowledge any symptoms of stress you might be feeling – such as an increased heart rate. Second, welcome these feelings, recognising they’re designed to help you focus and increase your energy.

Finally, visualise yourself making the choice to see stress as helpful and use these responses to thrive under pressure. This may seem difficult at first, but with practice, we can all learn to use visualisation to reinterpret stress as being helpful.

Stress is not always distress. If we choose to accept and embrace the upsides of stress, it can improve our mental health, performance and productivity.

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