Stress does a number on our mental and physical health. It can keep us awake and night, leave us unable to focus on important tasks during the day, and diminish our motivation to do much of anything beyond worry constantly.
The link between unmanaged chronic stress and chronic illnesses that include heart disease, depression and obesity are very real. Some studies have even revealed that stress leads to overeating. Despite its connection to illness and obesity, many people don’t take any steps to manage their stress
J David Creswell, assistant professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University has conducted studies that show that the application of self-affirmations can buffer stress. Recently he and his team took their research a step further to find out what, if any, impact self affirmations have on problem-solving performance in chronically stressed individuals.
Stress, Problem-Solving and Creativity
We’ve all been in that situation where we are under pressure to finish a project, the deadline is looming. As the tension builds we begin to make mistakes and lose our ability to think clearly. At some point we can’t think at all, much less problem-solve or look for creative solutions to our situation. Sometimes the pressure can send us into a complete melt-down. Creswell’s research indicates that if during these times of intense pressure, we engage in a session of positive affirmations we will be able to maintain our ability to think clearly and creatively.
Creswell’s study was based on the results of 73 students between the ages of 18 -34 that underwent a Remote Associate Task (RAT), a well-known measure of problem-solving and creativity. Prior to the RAT, each student was asked to rate their level of stress over the previous several months. Half of the students were instructed to engage in a self-affirmation activity.
Then, all of the students, under time pressure, underwent a series of 30 challenging RAT items ranging in difficulty from moderately to extremely difficult. The tasks required some level of creativity to complete. To create pressure, the RAT evaluator provided feedback (correct, incorrect) after each task. In addition, three times during the exercise the evaluator provided evaluative feedback (“I need you to try harder.”)
The participants that indicated they had been under high levels of stress solved roughly 50% fewer problems than the group that reported low stress except for the participants who completed the self-affirmations. The results of the study showed that the stressed students who engaged in the self-affirmation exercise performed as well as the students who reported low stress.
“We found that self-affirmation completely eliminates the effects of chronic stress,” Creswell said. “Those subjects managed to erase the negative effects of the chronic stress on their problem-solving performance.”
Creswell says the research shows that “People under high stress can foster better problem-solving simply by taking a moment beforehand to think about something that is important to them. It’s an easy-to-use and portable strategy you can roll out before you enter that high pressure performance situation.”
Applying The Research
If you plan to apply Creswell’s work to your own life you’ll need to utilize a method of self-affirmation that you may not be familiar with. When we think of self-affirmations we have a tendency to think that we should repeat positive thoughts to ourselves like “I can do this.” “I’m going to be successful.”
But Creswell says the affirmations have to be specific and about something that has value to us. “I’m a really good friend to Mary.” “I’m an asset to ABC Corporation.” “I’m a strong swimmer.” These are the affirmations that seem to have the most influence on stress reduction.
People tend to believe that being stressed-out is just part of life and there’s not much we can do about it. But that’s not true and taking the necessary steps to manage your stress is essential if you want to have a healthy, joyful, meaningful life.
Next time you feel the pressure building, write down a few affirmations about the things in your life that are most important to you and find out if it helps to push your stress thermometer back down. Creswell says the one remarkable feature of self-affirmation is that it can be brief, easily implemented and can have big effects.
What methods do you use to stay cool under pressure?
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