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Science Of Mindsets For Health & Performance

Key Takeaways

  • Mindsets are core beliefs or assumptions we have about a domain or category of things that orient us to expectations, explanations, and goals – they come from our upbringing, culture & media, influential people in life & our conscious choice

  • “Mindsets are a portal between conscious and subconscious processes – they operate as a default setting of the mind.” – Dr. Alia Crum

  • Negative beliefs can cause negative consequences the same way positive beliefs can produce positive results

  • “The total effect of anything is a combined product of what you’re doing and what you think about what you’re doing.” – Dr. Alia Crum

  • If you approach a diet with a mindset of restraint, it could counteract the benefit or objective effects of the diet – the brain is telling you to eat more food because you are telling yourself you’re being restricted

  • There’s bad messaging that stress is debilitating, bad, and should be avoided but in reality – stress puts us in a forward motion and propels us toward action

  • To leverage stress: (1) acknowledge that you’re stressed; (2) welcome the stress; (3) use the stress response to connect to the thing you care about (you only stress about things you care about)

  • To train mindset: (1) be aware that you have a mindset and your experiences are filtered (not objective); (2) think about the effects of mindset on life – is it helpful or harmful?; (3) seek ways to adapt a more useful mindset – healthy foods are indulgent and delicious, stress is natural and can help you learn & grow

  • Useful experiment: ask yourself, “What is the effect of my mindset about the experience X?” – ask yourself about the school, work, exercise, nutrition, etc.

What Is Mindset?

  • Mindset: core beliefs or assumptions we have about a domain or category of things that orient us to expectations, explanations, and goals

  • Assumptions you make about a domain – for example, do you view stress as debilitating and bad or motivating and good for you?

  • Mindsets help us simplify complex reality and distill down our core assumptions that shape and orient our thinking and action

  • If you have the mindset that intelligence is malleable, you will be motivated to grow and learn and build from

  • Do you have the mindset that healthy food is good for you and beneficial or disgusting and depriving?

  • Mindset shapes physiological mechanisms by changing what our bodies prioritize and are prepared to do

  • Mindset comes from four main sources: (1) upbringings; (2) culture & media; (3) influential others in our lives; (4) conscious choice

Mindset Shapes How Our Bodies Respond: The Milkshake Study

  • Do our beliefs about what we’re eating change our body’s physiological response to that food? (holding constant objective nutrients)

  • Taking into the consideration placebo effect, the idea that food could have a differential impact based on mindset is not as crazy as it seems

  • Design: participants were given an identical milkshake at two separate time points – once they were told the milkshake was healthy and full of good nutrients; the second time, they were told the milkshake was an indulgent, high-calorie treat

  • Results: when people thought they were consuming the high fat, high-calorie milkshake, ghrelin levels dropped 3x more – when participants believed the food was high calorie and indulgent, their bodies believed they were fuller and satiated

  • Ghrelin pathway is susceptible to thoughts: perceptions about a milkshake affected subconscious processing of the ghrelin pathway

  • This groundbreaking study showed two important things: (1) one of the first studies that showed any effect on belief about nutrition and physiology; (2) ghrelin has an adaptive component – if you believe you’re treating yourself and eating indulgently, you will feel more satiated

  • Read more: Mindset Over Milkshakes: Mindsets, Not Just Nutrients, Determines Ghrelin Response by Crum, Corbin, Brownell. & Salovey

Leveraging Mindset For Diet & Nutrition

  • It’s possible that the nutritional diet that brings you the most benefit & nutrients is partly based on the belief that it’s the right way

  • Belief, social context, and the body’s natural ability to respond to something affects everything we do and consume

  • “When it comes to what diet you’re eating, it does matter what it is and it matters what you think about that diet – and what others around you and in our culture think about that diet.” – Dr. Alia Crum

  • Social contexts inform mindset, and our mindsets interact with our physiology to produce outcomes

Exercise & Placebo Effect: The Hotel Study

  • Study question: is it possible that the results of exercise are in some part due to placebo?

  • Mindset and reorientation can help people reap the benefits of the exercise they’re already doing

  • Design: randomized hotel housekeepers into two groups – one group told the type of exercise they are getting is good and beneficial for their body & one control group

  • After 4 weeks both groups were surveyed as metrics taken such as weight, body fat, blood pressure

  • Hotel housekeepers are objectively very active (walking upstairs, pushing carts, changing linens, etc.) but don’t consider themselves as exercising – or at least don’t consider their fatigue to be beneficial exertion

  • Results: housekeepers in the group who were told their physical activity is beneficial lost weight, decreased blood pressure and started feeling better and more confident about themselves and their bodies

  • We have to be thoughtful in how we motivate people to exercise & the benefits of exercise – it needs to be beyond a handbook telling people the requirement of minutes (i.e., 150 minutes per week)

  • In another study, there was a strikingly higher risk of death rate based on a self-reported perception of amount activity (i.e., people with a low perception about how much exercise they’re getting (regardless of reality) had a higher risk of death)

  • Read more: Mind-set Matters: Exercise And The Placebo Effect by Crum & Langer

Sleep Deprivation & Mindset Effects

  • Does your perception of how you slept the night before impact how well you function the next day?

  • Study: Participants in a sleep study who were told they had gotten poor sleep performed worse on cognitive tasks than those told they slept well

  • There are important benefits of sleep we don’t want to compromise but it’s possible that mindset can help us cognitively and physiologically push through a bad night or a couple of bad nights of sleep

  • This could really impact your judgment of using a sleep tracker which tells you how you slept

  • Read more: Placebo Sleep Affects Cognitive Functioning by Draganich & Erdal

Conceptualizing Stress For Good

  • The public health message is that stress is bad and harmful for our health, productivity, relationships, fertility, cognition, etc.

  • The reality is that the body is designed to have an enhanced response to experiences of stress and encountering adversity in goal-related efforts

  • Benefits of stress: narrows focus, increases attention, speeds the rate of processing information, anabolic hormones which help the body grow muscle & learn

  • Stress can also enhance a sense of connection to values & connection to others

  • Stress is paradoxical and complex but we should question the role of mindset about stress in shaping a response to stress

  • If you view a stressor as more of a challenge and less of a threat, brain and body response is more adaptive

  • Ask yourself: at the core level do you view stress as something that’s bad and should be avoided or as natural and going to enhance us?

  • People who view stress as an opportunity for growth, experience better health outcomes, better well-being, higher performance

  • You can change your mindset about stress if you reorient your perception and change in mindset about stress, physiological symptoms related to stress, improved performance

  • Unsurprisingly, most Navy Seals view stress as a source of strength when studied

  • The key isn’t that you have to view stress as a good thing and embrace a cancer diagnosis, poverty, etc. – it’s that the experience of the stress can lead to enhancing outcomes

  • If you view stress as bad, you’ll be inclined to want to deal with it and get rid of it or just freak out – instead of using stress to realize enhancing outcomes (improved priorities, building strength, improved performance)

Leveraging Stress To Our Advantage

  • Clarify your definition of stress: decouple stress from its negative associations and realize it as a neutral effect of adversity in goal-related efforts

  • We only stress about things we care about so it’s two sides of the same coin – stress is connected to what we care about

  • Three steps to adoption stress as an enhancing mindset:

  • 1. Acknowledge that you’re stressed – own it, see it, be mindful of it