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Anxiety, Stress, & Coping
An International Journal
ISSN: 1061-5806 (Print) 1477-2205 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/gasc20
The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive,
emotional, and physiological responses to
challenging and threatening stress
Alia J. Crum, Modupe Akinola, Ashley Martin & Sean Fath
To cite this article: Alia J. Crum, Modupe Akinola, Ashley Martin & Sean Fath (2017): The role of
stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and
threatening stress, Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, DOI: 10.1080/10615806.2016.1275585
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10615806.2016.1275585
Published online: 25 Jan 2017.
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The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and
physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress
Alia J. Crum
, Modupe Akinola
, Ashley Martin
and Sean Fath
Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA;
Department of Management, Columbia
University, New York, NY, USA;
Department of Management and Organizations, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA
Background and objectives: Prior research suggests that altering
situation-specific evaluations of stress as challenging versus threatening
can improve responses to stress. The aim of the current study was to
explore whether cognitive, physiological and affective stress responses
can be altered independent of situation-specific evaluations by changing
individuals’mindsets about the nature of stress in general.
Design: Using a 2 × 2 design, we experimentally manipulated stress
mindset using multi-media film clips orienting participants (N= 113) to
either the enhancing or debilitating nature of stress. We also
manipulated challenge and threat evaluations by providing positive or
negative feedback to participants during a social stress test.
Results: Results revealed that under both threat and challenge stress
evaluations, a stress-is-enhancing mindset produced sharper increases in
anabolic (“growth”) hormones relative to a stress-is-debilitating mindset.
Furthermore, when the stress was evaluated as a challenge, a stress-is-
enhancing mindset produced sharper increases in positive affect,
heightened attentional bias towards positive stimuli, and greater
cognitive flexibility, whereas a stress-is-debilitating mindset produced
worse cognitive and affective outcomes.
Conclusions: These findings advance stress management theory and
practice by demonstrating that a short manipulation designed to
generate a stress-is-enhancing mindset can improve responses to both
challenging and threatening stress.
Received 17 June 2016
Revised 11 December 2016
Accepted 14 December 2016
Stress; mindset; appraisal;
Pioneering studies by Lazarus and Folkman (1984) highlighted the importance of cognitive appraisal
in determining the stress response. This research proposed that individuals first appraise the degree
to which the situation is demanding (primary appraisal) and then appraise whether or not they have
adequate resources to cope with the situation (secondary appraisal). More recently, researchers have
elaborated on these stages and highlighted that the stress response is determined by the balance of
perceived resources (e.g., knowledge, skills) and perceived demands (e.g., danger, uncertainty) and
have identified physiological concomitants of these challenge and threat evaluations (Blascovich,
Mendes, Tomaka, Salomon, & Seery, 2003; Gaab, Rohleder, Nater, & Ehlert, 2005; Seery, 2011;
Tomaka, Blascovich, Kelsey, & Leitten, 1993; Tomaka, Blascovich, Kibler, & Ernst, 1997; Wirtz et al.,
2007). Simply put, a situation is deemed threatening when the individual evaluates the environmental
demands to outweigh their resources or ability to cope. Physiologically, threat evaluations are associ-
ated with lower cardiovascular efficiency, heightened hormonal responses, negative affect, and
poorer cognitive performance (Kassam, Koslov, & Mendes, 2009; Mendes, Blascovich, Hunter,
© 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Alia J. Crum email@example.com
Institution where research was conducted.
ANXIETY, STRESS, & COPING, 2017
Lickel, & Jost, 2007). A situation is considered challenging when the individual perceives that they
have sufficient resources to meet the environmental demands. Challenge evaluations are typically
associated with increased cardiac efficiency and hormonal responses related to thriving and
growth, preparing the body for action and signaling approach motivation as well as increases in cog-
nitive performance (Kassam et al., 2009; Mendes et al., 2007).
While the distinction between “threat”and “challenge”evaluations is important, there are a few
critical limitations to practically applying threat and challenge theory to improve stress responses.
First, given that the components of demands include danger and uncertainty, there are times in
which it may be impossible to reduce the demands of a situation; for example, facing an unpredict-
able stressor such as a pop-quiz in a difficult class or receiving an unexpected cardiac-related health
diagnosis. Second, since the elements of resources include knowledge and abilities, there are
instances where trying to increase resources may be futile, particularly in the short-term; for instance,
cramming in new material two minutes before a pop-quiz or researching all possible cardiac-related
health diagnoses. Finally, trying to minimize the experience of threat by reducing demands and
increasing resources does not capitalize on the possibility that the imbalance itself can promote
psychological and physiological growth.
In light of these limitations, two important questions arise: is it possible to acknowledge a stressor
as a “threat,”yet still garner adaptive physiological and behavioral outcomes? Conversely, might it be
possible to appraise a stressor as a “challenge,”but nevertheless experience maladaptive physiologi-
cal and behavioral outcomes? In the current paper, we address these questions by examining the role
one’s mindset about stress plays in challenge and threat contexts. Specifically, we examine whether
the extent to which one holds an adaptive mindset about stress (e.g., that stress-is-enhancing) or a
maladaptive mindset about stress (e.g., that stress-is-debilitating) will alter one’s physiological, cog-
nitive, and emotional responses in the context of challenge and threat evaluations.
Stress mindset theory
Stress mindset is conceptualized as the extent to which an individual holds the mindset that stress
has enhancing consequences for various stress-related outcomes (referred to as a “stress-is-enhan-
cing mindset”) or holds the mindset that stress has debilitating consequences for outcomes such
as performance and productivity, health and well-being, and learning and growth (referred to as a
“stress-is-debilitating mindset”) (Crum, Salovey, & Achor, 2013). There is growing evidence that
mindset not only affects outcomes in domains of intelligence (Dweck, 2008) and aging (Levy &
Myers, 2004), but also shapes the stress response. Preliminary studies measuring stress mindset
suggest that stress mindset is related to perceived health and life satisfaction over and above aggre-
gate measures of amounts of stress, appraisals of stress, and various coping strategies (Crum et al.,
2013). Additionally, individuals who have a stress-is-enhancing mindset exhibit more adaptive phys-
iological responses and more approach-oriented behavioral responses in the face of stress (Crum
et al., 2013). Specifically, participants who rated themselves as having a stress-is-enhancing
mindset experienced moderate cortisol reactivity and were more receptive to feedback than those
with a stress-is-debilitating mindset when exposed to an acutely stressful situation. Stress mindset
can also be altered via intervention to produce corresponding changes in self-reported health and
work performance (Crum et al., 2013). In line with evidence that suggests mindsets can be
changed quite readily by simply orienting people to different information (cf. Blackwell, Trzesniewski,
& Dweck, 2007; Dweck, 2008; Paunesku et al., 2015; Tamir, John, Srivastava, & Gross, 2007; Walton,
2014), mindsets about stress can be changed by having individuals watch a series of three, 3-
minute videos orienting them to either the enhancing or debilitating effects of stress (Crum et al.,
2013). Further, prior research has demonstrated that video interventions can influence performance
and well-being; participants exposed to stress-is-enhancing videos not only developed a stress-is-
enhancing mindset, but also reported better work performance and improved health conditions
(Crum et al., 2013). These strong effects of stress mindset video interventions are consistent with
2A. J. CRUM ET AL.
research more broadly highlighting the enduring effects of interventions using short articles or
videos to alter mindset in other domains including intelligence (Blackwell et al., 2007), belongingness
(Walton, 2014), aging (Levy & Myers, 2004) and emotion regulation (Tamir et al., 2007).
Taken together, the emerging body of research on mindsets suggests that one way to meaning-
fully influence the stress response is to change an individual’s mindset about stress. The concept that
stress mindset is not situation-specific and can influence the stress response regardless of challenge
and threat evaluations has been argued conceptually and through structural equation modeling (see
Crum et al., 2013). However, this premise has not been experimentally tested, leaving open the ques-
tion of exactly how experiences of stress may differ in the context of both challenge and threat evalu-
ations, depending on one’s stress mindset.
Distinguishing between stress mindset and threat versus challenge theories
One critical distinction between stress mindset theory and theories surrounding challenge and
threat evaluations is that stress mindset does not focus on the amount of stress one is experiencing
or the manner in which one appraises and copes with stress. Rather, stress mindset focuses on the
nature of stress itself (i.e., whether stress is enhancing or debilitating). Stress mindset is distinct from
stress evaluations in that it is a meta-cognitive belief about the nature of stress in general, and
exists regardless of how an individual assesses demands and resources at any particular
moment (Crum et al., 2013). For example, one may view a stressor (e.g., job interview) as threaten-
ing, but have a stress-is-enhancing mindset, expecting the experience of stress to result in positive
outcomes (e.g., motivation to practice interviewing skills, staying cognitively focused, and ulti-
mately improving self-esteem). Conversely, one might view the job interview as a challenge but
have a stress-is-debilitating mindset, expecting the experience of stress to result in negative out-
comes (e.g., energy depletion, cognitive deficits, and reduced self-esteem). In addition, mindset
differs from evaluations of challenge or threat in its temporal focus: threat or challenge evaluations
are an immediate assessment of one’s resources to cope with the demands of the stressor while
mindset assesses the long-term influence of the stressor in light of one’s belief about the nature
Understanding how stress mindset operates in challenging and threatening contexts provides
critical insights into if and how individuals can improve their responses to stress without relying
on changing the demands of a situation (which may be difficult or impossible), or improving their
immediate resources (which can be infeasible or taxing). Further, the majority of interventions
intended to engender adaptive stress responses rely on altering situation-specific stress evaluations.
By showing that the stress response can be altered independent of situation-specific evaluations by
changing individuals’general beliefs, we advance existing literature and lay the foundation for an
integrated theory that can apply to any type of stressful situation. Practically, understanding how
stress mindset operates in the context of threat and challenge evaluations will offer more specific
coping strategies, and more flexible options that can aid individuals in improving their stress
responses in varied contexts.
Overview of the current research
In the current study, we experimentally manipulated stress-is-enhancing and stress-is-debilitating
mindsets and then exposed participants to a laboratory social stressor (adapted Trier Social
Stress Task; [TSST] Kirschbaum, Pirke, & Hellhammer, 1993) designed to engender threat or chal-
lenge stress evaluations. Following the stress manipulation, we assessed participants’mood, cog-
nitive flexibility, and attentional bias, all metrics found to be influenced by stress (Alexander, Hillier,
Smith, Tivarus, & Beversdorf, 2007; Bolger, DeLongis, Kessler, & Schilling, 1989; Het & Wolf, 2007;
Mogg, Mathews, Bird, & Macgregor-Morris, 1990; Plessow, Fischer, Kirschbaum, &
Goschke, 2011). We also measured the catabolic hormone, cortisol, and its anabolic counterpart,
ANXIETY, STRESS, & COPING 3
dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate (DHEAS) to test the degree to which stress-is-enhancing and
stress-is-debilitating mindsets differentially promote physiological thriving when evaluating a situ-
ation as challenging or threatening (Dienstbier, 1989; Epel, McEwen, & Ickovics, 1998). We hypoth-
esized that those evaluating the stressor as a threat (engendered through negative feedback
during the social stress task) would exhibit maladaptive emotional, cognitive, and neuroendocrine
responses to stress relative to those evaluating the stressor as a challenge (engendered through
positive feedback during the social stress task). Specifically, we predicted that threat evaluations
would be associated with greater negative emotion, diminished cognitive flexibility, heightened
focus on threatening faces, and greater cortisol secretion relative to challenge evaluations.
Further, we predicted an interaction between mindset and challenge and threat conditions,
such that under threat, having a stress-is-enhancing mindset would be associated with more adap-
tive emotional, cognitive, and neuroendocrine responses than having a stress-is-debilitating
mindset. Conversely, under challenge, we predicted that having a stress-is-debilitating mindset
might dampen or even inhibit the cognitive, physiological, or psychological benefits of challenge
We recruited 124 (40.2% White, 32% Asian, 15.3% Black, 9.8% Native American, and 2.5% other) par-
ticipants (65.6% female; M
= 24.1 years; SD = 5.1) from a university study pool. Participants received
$20 for their participation. A power analysis based on the average effect size (d= .66) found in pre-
vious stress reappraisal manipulations (e.g., Jamieson, Mendes, Blackstock, & Schmader, 2010; Jamie-
son, Nock, & Mendes, 2012; Tomaka et al., 1993) led to a targeted sample of 30 participants per
Participants were scheduled to participate for 90 minutes during afternoon hours (between 2:30 pm
and 5 pm). Participants were instructed to refrain from drinking caffeine or eating yogurt for a
minimum of two hours prior to their scheduled time and from engaging in strenuous exercise, drink-
ing alcohol, smoking, or taking non-prescription medication immediately before their appointment.
During the consent process, the experimenter asked participants if they had complied with these
instructions, and collected information on the number of hours participants slept the night prior, if
they felt sick, and for females, the date of their last menstrual cycle. Following informed consent pro-
cedures, participants completed questionnaires assessing their mood and stress mindset and pro-
vided the first saliva sample. Stress mindset was then induced by randomly assigning participants
to watch a 3-minute video that either emphasized the enhancing properties of stress (stress-is-enhan-
cing condition) or the deleterious properties of stress (stress-is-debilitating condition). The videos
were comprised of words, music, and corresponding images related to the effects of stress on cog-
nitive performance (Crum et al., 2013).
Following the videos, participants again completed the stress
mindset measure (SMM).
Participants then engaged in a modified version of the TSST, which was described as a “mock job
interview.”During the interview, participants were instructed to give an 8-minute speech, followed by
a 5-minute question and answer period in which they discussed their dream job and described their
strengths and weaknesses in front of two interviewers (one white male and one white female)
(Akinola & Mendes, 2008). We selected a public speaking/verbal task rather than a math/cognitive
task as we wanted to create a motivated performance situation that would allow participants to
receive explicit positive and negative verbal feedback on their performance and consistent with evi-
dence that both public speaking/verbal interaction tasks and math/cognitive tasks can result in
heightened HPA activation (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004).
4A. J. CRUM ET AL.
On the basis of previous research, we manipulated challenge and threat evaluations by randomly
assigning participants to receive either positive or negative feedback during the interview (Akinola &
Mendes, 2008; Kassam et al., 2009). Approximately 30 seconds into the interview, participants
assigned to the positive feedback condition received positive verbal and nonverbal feedback from
the interviewers who nodded, smiled, leaned forward, and gave explicit positive feedback (e.g.,
“You are very clear and manage to put your personality across. You are very self-assured and auth-
entic, really great job”). In the negative feedback condition, interviewers expressed negative nonver-
bal feedback by furrowing their brows, shaking their heads, and crossing their arms throughout the
interview. They also gave explicit negative feedback (e.g., “I felt that you could be much clearer and
more articulate. Think about what you are saying before you say it”). The entire interview task, includ-
ing preparation time, speech, and Q & A lasted approximately 20 minutes.
Immediately following the interview, participants completed demand and resource evaluations
and reported their emotions. They then provided a second saliva sample (timed approximately 30
minutes after the onset of the social stress task) after which they engaged in two
ance tasks assessing attentional bias (timed approximately 40 minutes after the onset of the social
stress task) and cognitive flexibility (timed approximately 45 minutes after the onset of the social
stress task). Finally, participants provided a third and final saliva sample (timed approximately 60
minutes after the onset of the social stress task). At the end of the study, participants were debriefed,
paid, and thanked.
Stress mindset was assessed prior to and following the video manipulation using the SMM (Crum
et al., 2013). Participants rated how strongly they agreed with eight statements (e.g., the effects of
stress are positive and should be utilized, the effects of stress are negative and should be avoided)
on a 0 (strongly disagree)to4(strongly agree) scale with numbers equal to or above two reflecting
a stress-is-enhancing mindset (α
= .85, α
Threat vs. challenge evaluations
After the speech task, participants evaluated the demands of the situation (e.g., the task was very
demanding) and their resources (e.g., I had the abilities to perform well on the task) on a 1 (strongly
disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) scale (Akinola & Mendes, 2013). Demand (α= .80) and resource (α= .75)
evaluations were averaged separately and a “‘threat ratio’” (demands/resources) was created. In line
with previous research (Akinola & Mendes, 2008; Kassam et al., 2009), ratios above 1 indicated threat
evaluations and below 1 indicated challenge evaluations.
Positive and negative affect
We assessed self-reported emotions at five time-points: (1) upon arrival (baseline), (2) after watching
the stress mindset videos, (3) after receiving speech task instructions, (4) after the speech task (during
the social stress task), and (5) after the question and answer component of social stress task, using the
Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988). Participants rated their feel-
ings on 20 emotional states (10 positive; 10 negative) on a 1 (not at all) to 5 (a great deal) scale. Posi-
tive (αs range from.89 to .92) and negative (αs range from.80 to .85) emotion scales were calculated.
Because we were primarily interested in examining changes in positive affect and negative affect in
anticipation of and during the social stress task, we focused our analyses the three key time-points: (1)
baseline, (2) pre-speech, and (3) post-speech. For ease of interpretation, we report results from only
these three time-periods, however, analyses using all five times periods followed similar linear and
ANXIETY, STRESS, & COPING 5
To assess visual attention to positive and negative stimuli, participants engaged in a computerized
dot-probe task (MacLeod, Mathews, & Tata, 1986). Black and white pictures of white male faces iden-
tical to those used in Bradley, Mogg, Falla, and Hamilton (1998) served as stimuli. The emotions dis-
played in the pictures varied such that there were 16 angry faces, 16 happy faces, and eight neutral
faces. Each trial began with a fixation cross in the middle of the screen for 500 ms, followed by 200 ms
of blank screen. Stimulus pairs were then presented, consisting of angry/neutral, happy/neutral, or
neutral/neutral-face pairings, displayed horizontally, side by side on the screen. Face pairs were pre-
sented for 1500 ms after which one of the pictures was replaced by the visual probe (a small dot).
Participants were instructed to press one of two keys indicating the side, right or left, of the
probe’s appearance. Reaction time to the probe was used to assess participants’attentional bias.
Facial expression of the stimuli (happy, angry, or neutral) and dot position (right or left of fixation)
were randomized across all 80 trials presented and the computer recorded latencies. Response
latencies above 2000 milliseconds and below 200 milliseconds were removed from the data, as
were all incorrect responses (less than 5% of total responses) (Koster, Crombez, Verschuere, & De
Houwer, 2004). Attentional bias scores were calculated separately for happy and angry faces by sub-
tracting participants’mean log-transformed dot-detection latency for the happy or angry-face
location trials from their mean log-transformed dot-detection latency for the neutral-face location
trials (cf. Richeson & Trawalter, 2008). Greater bias scores indicate greater attention to the happy
(or angry) faces.
Participants engaged in the Alternative Uses Task (Guilford, 1967) in which they were asked to gen-
erate as many creative uses for a newspaper as possible within two minutes. Because of the time con-
straints on this task, participants must utilize cognitive flexibility to avoid perseveration and come up
with multiple uses for the newspaper before the time for the task expires. Uses were coded for
fluency (total number of responses), elaboration (amount of detail for each response), flexibility
(number of different categories used), and originality (uniqueness of the responses). Two indepen-
dent judges, unaware of condition, scored the four categories. Final scores were computed by
taking the average of the two coders’scores (inter-coder reliability ranged from.80 to .90).
Neuroendocrine measures: DHEAS and cortisol
Saliva samples were obtained at three time-periods: (1) before the social stress task (T1), (2) approxi-
mately 30 minutes after the onset of the social stress task but before the cognitive tasks (T2), and (3)
approximately 60 minutes after the onset of the social stress task, immediately following the cogni-
tive tasks (T3). At each time point, 1 mL of saliva was collected using the passive drool method.
Because DHEAS levels are known to vary depending on flow rate, the time it took for participants
to complete each 1 mL sample was recorded by the experimenter. Upon completion of the study,
saliva samples were immediately frozen until they were shipped overnight on dry ice to a laboratory
in College Park, PA. Saliva samples were assayed for cortisol and DHEAS using a highly sensitive
enzyme immunoassay (Salimetrics, PA). Intra- and inter-assay coefficients were less than 10%. Flow
rates for each time period for DHEAS were calculated as 1mL divided by the time it took for each
sample to be collected and DHEAS levels multiplied by the flow rate so as to express the results as
a function of time (pg/min). Finally, because DHEAS and cortisol levels were positively skewed,
they were log-transformed prior to analysis.
Data analysis strategy
To test our prediction that stress mindset would differentially influence affective, cognitive, and
neuroendocrine responses depending on the type of stress (i.e., challenge or threat) experienced,
6A. J. CRUM ET AL.
we conducted 2 (mindset: stress-is-enhancing vs. stress-is-debilitating) × 2 (feedback: negative/threat
vs. positive/challenge) ANOVAs for all dependent variables. For positive affect, negative affect,
DHEAS, and cortisol (all of which were collected at multiple time-points) we conducted repeated
measures ANOVAs with time as a within-subjects variable and mindset and feedback conditions as
between subjects variables. Gender and stress mindset at baseline were included as covariates in
all analyses. Hours of sleep and menstrual cycle phase were also included as covariates for the neuro-
In cases where Mauchly’s test of sphericity was violated, degrees of freedom
were corrected using Greenhouse-Geisser estimates of sphericity.
Eleven participants were excluded from the analyses, five due to recognition of the evaluators (con-
federates), four to equipment malfunction, and two because they did not complete the entire study.
Data from the remaining 113 participants were used in all analyses. Varying degrees of freedom
reflect the data loss across variables. Means and standard deviations are reported for all key
outcome variables in Table 1.
Changes in stress mindset from baseline were measured to assess whether the videos engendered
stress-is-enhancing and stress-is-debilitating mindsets. Participants in the stress-is-enhancing con-
dition experienced increases on the SMM reflecting a more enhancing stress mindset (M= 2.48); t
(53) = 7.99, p< .001, while those in the stress-is-debilitating condition experienced decreases on
the SMM reflecting a more debilitating stress mindset (M= 1.13); t(53) = -7.63, p< .001 (Figure 1(a)).
We then examined the threat ratio created from the cognitive evaluations following the speech
task. As intended, the negative feedback condition resulted in a higher threat ratio (M= 1.44) than
the positive feedback condition (M= .95), t(111) = 4.82, p< .001 (Figure 1(b)), indicating that we suc-
cessfully manipulated threat and challenge evaluations.
Table 1. Means and standard deviations (in parentheses) for key outcome variables as a function of mindset and feedback
Positive feedback (challenge appraisal) Negative feedback (threat appraisal)
Stress-is-enhancing Stress-is-debilitating Stress-is-enhancing Stress-is-debilitating
Positive affect (1–5)
Baseline 2.99 (0.81) 2.91 (0.75) 3.10 (0.66) 3.04 (0.80)
Pre-speech 3.11 (0.66) 2.69 (0.83) 2.96 (0.87) 2.80 (0.96)
Post-speech 3.51 (0.81) 2.99 (0.86) 2.80 (0.77) 2.58 (0.91)
Negative affect (1–5)
Baseline 1.42 (0.37) 1.55 (0.57) 1.52 (0.47) 1.58 (0.56)
Pre-speech 1.86 (0.57) 1.97 (0.70) 2.02 (0.59) 2.10 (0.75)
Post-speech 1.35 (0.35) 1.48 (0.41) 2.06 (0.67) 2.14 (0.76)
Happy faces 19.08 (33) −0.84 (45) −1.81 (45) 5.17 (45)
Angry faces 0.78 (33) 3.09 (50) −11.34 (50) −21.16 (37)
Cognitive flexibility 6.34 (2.03) 5.12 (2.21) 4.63 (2.19) 5.06 (2.30)
Baseline 17.76 (13.07) 10.75 (5.08) 16.61 (7.15) 12.56 (6.17)
Post-social stress task 23.97 (12.26) 21.49 (18.36) 25.87 (14.07) 23.92 (25.63)
Post-cognitive tasks 16.67 (9.35) 16.65 (13.09) 21.59 (13.52) 16.87 (13.65)
Baseline 2550.74 (2219) 2752.41 (2108) 2633.98 (1972) 2992.33 (3674)
Post-social stress task 3804.08 (3750) 2479.32 (2045) 6541.92 (9487) 2686.07 (2291)
Post-cognitive tasks 1952.50 (1175) 2459.07 (2192) 2671.21 (1736) 3032.96 (2084)
ANXIETY, STRESS, & COPING 7
Importantly, the stress mindset manipulation did not significantly alter evaluations of the speech
task in either the positive (F(1, 55) =0.29,p= .593,η
= .005) or negative (F(1, 56) =0.09,p= .763,η
= .007) feedback conditions. This finding supports the theory that mindsets and threat versus chal-
lenge evaluations are distinct constructs and therefore could be examined independently.
Positive and negative affect
For positive affect, we observed a significant time × feedback condition effect F(2, 202) =18.29,p
< .001, η
= .153 such that participants in the positive feedback (challenge evaluation) condition
experienced increases in positive affect over time relative to those in the negative feedback
(threat evaluation) condition, who experienced decreases in positive affect over time. We also
found a significant time × mindset condition effect F(2, 202) =3.63,p= .020, η
= .035 such that par-
ticipants in the stress-is-enhancing condition experienced increases in positive affect over time rela-
tive to those in the stress-is-debilitating condition, who experienced decreases in positive affect over
time. The three-way interaction between mindset, feedback, and time was not statistically significant
F(2, 202) = 0.73, p> .482, η
= .007. However, simple-effects tests (illustrated in Figure 2) demon-
strated that while there were no differences between the four conditions in positive affect at baseline
F(3, 112) = 0.322, p= .810, η
= .009 or prior to the speech F(3, 110) = 1.35, p= .262, η
= .037, there
was a significant difference between conditions following the speech F(3, 112) = 5.47, p= .002, η
= .131, such that participants who had a stress-is-enhancing mindset and were in the positive feed-
back (challenge evaluation) condition had significantly more positive affect after the speech task than
participants in the other three conditions.
For negative affect, we observed a significant time × feedback condition effect, F(1.84, 186) =
= .163. Simple-effects tests within each time period (Figure 2) indicated that
there were no differences in negative affect between the positive feedback (challenge evaluation)
condition and the negative feedback (threat evaluation) condition at baseline F(1, 106) = 2.37, p
= .126, η
= .023, or pre-speech F(1, 107) = 0.90, p= .345, η
= .007. However, there were significant
differences between conditions following the speech F(1, 107) = 37.99, p< .001, η
= .271, such
that negative affect remained higher for participants in the negative feedback (threat evaluation)
condition compared to participants in the positive feedback (challenge evaluation) condition.
Neither the time × mindset condition effect nor the three-way interaction between mindset, feed-
back, and time were significant [F(1.84, 186) =0.02,p= 978, η
= .000 and F(1.84, 186) =0.036,p
= .965, η
= .000, respectively].
Figure 1. Means and standard errors for SMM pre- and post-mindset video (a) and Threat ratio post-speech (b).
Note: SIE = stress-is-enhancing and SID = stress-is-debilitating.
8A. J. CRUM ET AL.
Results for attentional bias for happy faces showed a similar pattern as our positive affect findings in
the positive feedback condition. There were no main effects of mindset or feedback condition on
attentional bias, however there was a significant mindset × feedback condition interaction, F(1, 95)
= 4.48, p= .037, η
= .047. Simple-effects tests showed that, in the positive feedback (challenge evalu-
ation) condition, bias towards happy faces was significantly higher for those with a stress-is-enhan-
cing mindset relative to those with a stress-is-debilitating mindset, F(1, 46) = 4.40, p= .042, η
again suggesting that a stress-is-enhancing mindset only boosted attentional bias towards happy
faces when participants were in the positive feedback (challenge stress evaluation) condition. In con-
trast, in the negative feedback (threat evaluation) condition, there was no difference in bias toward
happy faces between mindset conditions, F(1, 48) = 0.88, p= .354, η
= .019 (Figure 3(a)). With respect
to attentional bias toward angry faces on the Dot Probe task, we observed a marginally significant
effect of feedback condition, F(1, 95) = 3.46, p= .066, η
= .037, such that those in the negative feed-
back (threat evaluation) condition showed greater attentional bias away from angry faces than those
in the positive feedback (challenge evaluation) condition (Figure 3(b)).
Figure 2. Mean positive affect (a) and negative affect (b) ratings as a function of mindset and feedback condition over three time-
Note: SIE =stress-is-enhanc ing and SID =stress-is-de bilitating; Error bars show standard errors.
ANXIETY, STRESS, & COPING 9
For flexibility, while there was no main effect of mindset, we observed a significant main effect of
feedback condition F(1, 105) = 4.64, p= .033, η
= .044, such that participants in the positive feedback
(challenge evaluation) condition received higher cognitive flexibility scores than those in the nega-
tive feedback (threat evaluation) condition. This main effect was qualified by a marginally significant
interaction, F(1, 105) = 3.63, p= .060, η
= .035. Consistent with our attentional bias findings, partici-
pants who were in the positive feedback (challenge evaluation) condition and held a stress-is-enhan-
cing mindset received higher flexibility scores than those who held a stress-is-debilitating mindset, F
(1, 52) = 4.22, p= .045, η
= .079 (Figure 3(c)). Aligned with the aforementioned effects, this suggests
that a stress-is-enhancing mindset only generated creative flexibility when participants were in the
positive feedback (challenge evaluation) condition. In contrast, in the negative feedback (threat
evaluation) condition, there was no difference in flexibility between mindset conditions, F(1, 52) =
0.21, p= .648, η
= .004. In other words, whereas stress-is-enhancing and stress-is-debilitating mind-
sets significantly differed from each other in cognitive flexibility in the positive feedback condition,
they did not differ in the negative feedback condition.
In summary, for each of the cognitive performance categories, we observed differential perform-
ance for participants with a stress-is-enhancing mindset relative to those with a stress-is-debilitating
mindset, but mainly in the positive feedback (challenge evaluation) condition.
Figure 3. Attentional bias scores for happy faces (a), attentional bias scores for angry faces (b), and creativity scores (c) as a function
of mindset and feedback conditions.
Note: SIE =stress-is-enhanc ing and SID =stress-is-de bilitating; Error bars show standard errors;*p< .05.
10 A. J. CRUM ET AL.
Neuroendocrine responses: DHEAS and cortisol
For DHEAS, we observed a significant time × mindset condition effect, F(2, 108) =6.62,p= .002,η
= .109. Within-subjects contrasts revealed that this effect was quadratic in nature, F(1, 54) =12.32,
p= .001, η
= .186, such that that relative to participants in the stress-is debilitating condition, partici-
pants in the stress-is-enhancing condition experienced significantly sharper increases in DHEAS
between baseline (T1) and the end of the social stress task (T2), F(1, 54) =10.65,p= .002, η
followed by significantly sharper decreases in DHEAS between the end of the social stress task
(T2) and the end of the cognitive tasks (T3), F(1, 55) =7.73,p= .007, η
= .123. Simple-effects tests
within each time period (illustrated in Figure 4(a)) indicated that there were no differences in
DHEAS between the stress-is-enhancing and stress-is-debilitating mindset conditions at baseline
(T1), F(1, 60) =0.29,p= .595, η
= .005 or following the cognitive tasks (T3), F(1, 61) =0.04,p= .845,
= .001, but that DHEAS was higher for participants in the stress-is-enhancing mindset condition
compared to participants in the stress-is-debilitating mindset condition following the speech task
(T2), F(1, 61) =4.07,p= .048, η
= .068. Neither the time × feedback condition effect nor the mindset ×
feedback × time effects were significant for DHEAS [F(2, 108) =1.17,p= .316, η
= .021 and F(2, 108)
= .005, respectively].
Figure 4. Changes in DHEAS (a) and cortisol (b) over time as a function of mindset.
Note: SIE =stress-is-enhanc ing and SID =stress-is-de bilitating; Error bars show standard errors at each time period.
ANXIETY, STRESS, & COPING 11
For cortisol, the time × mindset condition was not significant F(1.22, 67.13) = 0.41, p= .665, η
= .007. Further, aligned with our DHEAS findings, neither the time × feedback condition effect nor
the time × mindset × feedback effects were significant for cortisol [F(1.22, 67.13) = 0.13, p= .878, η
= .002 and F(1.22, 67.13) = 0.367, p= .694, η
= .002, respectively].
In line with research suggesting that bothDHEAS (e.g., Morgan et al., 2004; Shields, Lam, Trainor, & Yone-
linas, 2016; Sripada et al., 2013) and cortisol (e.g., Gagnon & Wagner, 2016; Het, Ramlow, & Wolf, 2005;
Shields, Bonner, & Moons, 2015) can influence cognitive functioning, we examined the relationship
between our neuroendocrine measures and cognitive performance scores using the AUC increase
measure for both DHEAS and cortisol. In order to analyze these correlations, we conducted area under
the curve increase analysis (AUC; Pruessner, Kirschbaum, Meinlschmid, & Hellhammer, 2003) using the
following formula: (((HormoneTime1 + HormoneTime2) * 60)/2) + (((HormoneTime2 + HormoneTime3)
* 20)/2) −(HormoneTime1 * 80), with 60 representing the time between the first and second saliva
samples, 20 representing the time between the second and third saliva samples, and 80 representing
the time from saliva sample one to saliva sample three. These results indicated no significant correlations
between our neuroendocrine measures and our cognitive performance measures (all ps > .510).
The goal of this study was to examine how stress mindset would moderate emotional, cognitive, and
neuroendocrine responses in the context of challenge and threat evaluations. Consistent with extant
theory, we predicted that threat evaluations would produce poorer emotional, cognitive, and neuro-
endocrine outcomes relative to challenge evaluations. However, we also predicted that threat and
challenge evaluations would be moderated by stress mindset such that having a stress-is-enhancing
mindset would improve responses in the context of threat evaluations and having a stress-is-debil-
itating mindset would worsen responses in the context of challenge evaluations.
Our results revealed that adopting a stress-is-enhancing mindset was indeed beneficial as it relates to
positive emotion and DHEAS secretion; participants with a stress-is-enhancing mindset experienced
greater increases in DHEAS and greater increases in positive emotions relative to those with a stress-
is-debilitating mindset in both the positive feedback (challenge) and negative feedback (threat) con-
ditions. The boost to positive emotions and DHEAS-amplifying effect of a stress-is-enhancing mindset
is particularly noteworthy as it contributes to stress management theory and practice by showing that
adaptive outcomes don’t solely ensue from acknowledging a stressor as challenging, but can also
ensue from acknowledging a stressor as threatening if accompanied by an enhancing mindset. Impor-
tantly, having a stress-is-enhancing mindset may not make stressful situations feel any less emotionally
difficult (as negative affect was still high) or any less physiologically taxing (as cortisol levels were still
high). However, our resultssuggest that having a stress-is-enhancing mindset can promote physiological
thriving as evidenced by the heightened DHEAS we observed under both challenge and threat evalu-
ations. The anabolic and antiglucocorticoid effects of DHEAS (Morgan et al.,2004), particularly when com-
bined with itsability to promote physiological resilience (Charney,2004) and positive mood (Frye & Lacey,
1999), may foster resilience under stress, facilitating one’s ability to endure future stressors.
With respect to cognitive responses, we found that a stress-is-enhancing mindset produced
greater attentional bias towards happy faces, and more cognitive flexibility, than a stress-is-debilitat-
ing mindset for participants receiving positive feedback (challenge evaluation). In other words,
although mindset did moderate the effects of stress differentially depending on whether challenge
or threat evaluations were evoked, the majority of the cognitive benefits of a stress-is-enhancing
mindset occurred primarily under challenge evaluations. In contrast, those with a stress-is-debilitating
mindset experienced worse cognitive flexibility and less bias to happy faces despite facing a see-
mingly manageable stressor (i.e., positive feedback). The finding that adopting a stress-is-debilitating
12 A. J. CRUM ET AL.
mindset under challenge evaluations produced similar outcomes as those under threat may help
explain why even small everyday stressors can have negative effects (McIntyre, Korn, & Matsuo,
2008), sometimes evoking worse somatic outcomes than more threatening life events (Almeida,
2005; DeLongis, Coyne, Dakof, Folkman, & Lazarus, 1982). Moreover, the amplifying cognitive flexi-
bility effect we observed of having a stress-is-enhancing mindset under challenge evaluations is par-
ticularly interesting as it is consistent with literature showing that the experience of positive emotions
can broaden individuals’thought–action repertoires, building enduring physical, intellectual, social,
and psychological resources and producing flexible, creative, and novel thinking (Amabile,
Barsade, Mueller, & Staw, 2005; Fredrickson, 2001; Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004).
It is important to note that the interpretation of our attentional bias findings remains unclear as
there is significant debate regarding whether the dot-probe measures a heightened vigilance toward
information or an inability to disengage from information (e.g., Fox, Russo, Bowels, & Dutton, 2001; Fox,
Russo, & Dutton, 2002; Koster et al., 2004; Salemink, van den Hout, Kindt, 2007). In light of this debate,
our finding that under challenge evaluations, bias towards happy faces was significantly higher for
those with a stress-is-enhancing mindset relative to those with a stress-is-debilitating mindset
could suggest that either those in the stress-is-enhancing condition had heightened vigilance to
happy faces or couldn’t disengage from happy faces. Regardless of the interpretation, our finding
nonetheless represents the concept that participants who believe stress is enhancing spend more
time attending to happy faces than those who believe stress is debilitating.
Taken together, the results of this study suggest that while having a stress-is-enhancing mindset
increased positive mood, cognitive flexibility, attention to happy faces (under challenge evaluations),
and DHEAS responses (under both threat and challenge evaluations), it did not seem to reduce nega-
tive emotional reactions to the stress in either the challenging or threatening conditions. Thus, adopt-
ing a stress-is-enhancing mindset in the face of both challenging and threatening situations may be
beneficial, not necessarily because of its ability to make the stress feel less negative or threatening,
but rather, by recruiting and magnifying cognitive, emotional, and physiological attributes that
may contribute to adaptive responses over the long-run. Importantly, these finding do not
suggest that adopting a stress-is-enhancing mindset is a panacea for all stressful situations. Under
threat, the only adaptive response we observed was the boost in DHEAS. Boosts in cognitive flexibility
and attentional bias were only found under challenge evaluations, suggesting that, whenever poss-
ible, people should still attempt to evaluate stressors as challenging (as opposed to threatening).
Moreover, the finding that there were no effects of mindset or threat vs. challenge evaluation on cor-
tisol in this study serves as an important reminder that some of the responses to stress may be inde-
pendent of both evaluations of the stressor and mindsets about the nature of stress in general.
Several additional limitations should be acknowledged and addressed in future research. First, our
stress task was designed to focus on the relative effects of mindset under threat (negative feedback)
and challenge (positive feedback) evaluations, and therefore did not include a control group (e.g., no
feedback from evaluators), which by nature would be lower arousal (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004). As a
result, our study is constrained in that we have little insight into how mindset influences challenge
and threat evaluations relative to lower arousal situations, and we cannot examine if confounding
variables related to our feedback manipulations may have affected our results. However, given
that prior research has found that the neuroendocrine, emotional, and cognitive effects of no feed-
back social stress control conditions typically fall in the middle of the effects seen in negative (threat)
and positive (challenge) feedback conditions (Akinola & Mendes, 2008; Kassam et al., 2009), and that
mindset effects under low stress engender similar neuroendocrine results as we observed in this
study (Crum et al., 2013), we can speculate that a stress-is-enhancing mindset in a lower arousal situ-
ation would produce results that were less pronounced than those in the positive (challenge) con-
dition, but more pronounced than those seen in the stress-is-debilitating mindset negative (threat)
condition. Nonetheless, future research is needed that explores the effect of mindset in lower
arousal, more ambiguous, even naturally occurring stressful situations, to better tease apart the pro-
cesses through which stress mindsets exert psychological, physiological, and behavioral effects.
ANXIETY, STRESS, & COPING 13
Second, we explored mindset effects as they relate to acute short-term stressors. Of considerable
interest are the duration of stress mindset effects and the longitudinal sequence of emotional, cognitive,
and neuroendocrine outcomes triggered by approaching stress in a stress-is-enhancing mindset rela-
tive to a stress-is-debilitating mindset under situations of chronic stress. Third, there is evidence that
both DHEAS and cortisol have cognitive effects (Gagnon & Wagner, 2016; Het et al., 2005; Shields
et al., 2015,2016; Sripada et al., 2013), however, these cognitive effects were not observed in our
study. It is possible that the type of cognitive tasks we used in this study (alternative uses and dot
probe) may not be representative of the types of tasks that are influenced by neuroendocrine
changes, such as episodic recall tasks or measures of decision-making competence. Future studies
should consider broadening the range of cognitive tasks used to further our understanding of the
types of cognitive tasks for which stress mindset manipulations may be particularly beneficial. Finally,
as is common with laboratory research, our sample consisted of young and healthy undergraduate
and graduate students living in the United States, and did not include a no-stress control group as
we were primarily interested in the relative benefit of stress mindset in challenging and threatening con-
texts. Additional research is needed to examine whether the benefits of adopting a stress-is-enhancing
mindset extend to different populations and settings, such as among individuals with anxiety disorders,
in contexts with no stress or more extreme levels of stress, and in cultures where mindsets about stress
and anxiety are different from those in the United States (Tweed, White, & Lehman, 2004).
Stress is an undeniable part of everyday reality for most individuals. Our findings advance stress
theory by highlighting the relative benefit of stress mindset in the context of both threat and challenge
evaluations. Taken together, these results do not refute or question the powerful role of threat and
challenge evaluations in shaping the stress response. Rather, they enrich the literature by demonstrat-
ing some important nuances regarding how mindsets and evaluations interact. Specifically our results
suggest that the cognitive and affective benefits of challenge evaluations many only be present when
approached through in a stress-is-enhancing mindset and, furthermore, that a stress-is-enhancing
mindset may also help improve physiological responses in both challenging and threatening stress
by boosting DHEAS. Although much remains to be explored, these results lay the foundation for an
integrated theory demonstrating that altering general beliefs about stress can change situation-
specific stress evaluations. In doing so, this research provides a hopeful possibility that individuals
can improve their responses to stress –both in the face of manageable stressors as well as in the
face of threatening stressors –by adopting more enhancing mindsets about stress that are not specific
to the stressor at hand, but can generally apply to any stressful situation.
1. The videos used in this study are available upon request from the first author.
2. Participants also completed a third cognitive interference task; however, we do not report on this measure as it
not the theoretical focus of the current research.
3. Although we controlled for menstrual cycle variation in women by controlling for the time since last menstrua-
tion, we were not able to control for inevitable variation in menstrual cycles between women. That said, it is unli-
kely that such cycle variation would meaningfully affect the results given that variability in menstrual cycle is likely
randomly distributed across conditions.
4. It is important to note that although changes in cortisol were not observed in this study, the effects of mindset
and challenge/threat evaluations on cortisol responses remain unclear. There is evidence that the effects of
mindset on cortisol are moderated by individual reactivity (as compared to a baseline day) (Crum et al., 2013).
Additional research is needed to further our understanding of how cortisol responses may be differentially
altered depending the person, their mindset, and the context.
We thank Safiya Castel, Chris Crew, Jihyeon Kim, Asia McCleary-Gaddy, Brandon Rude, and Yael Warach for their help
conducting the studies and Adam Galinsky, Jeremy Jameison, Karim Kassam, Wendy Berry Mendes, Jeanne Tsai, and
Ting Zhang for their comments on this manuscript.
14 A. J. CRUM ET AL.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
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