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Written by: Bob Bertsch

The other day, my wife and I were on our way to have lunch at a local restaurant. The restaurant is in an entertainment complex that we don’t go to often, and I can never quite remember how to get into the nearest parking lot. I ended up taking a wrong turn and driving against one-way traffic. 

Suddenly my stress levels rose. My heart was pounding, my muscles tensed, and dozens of thoughts filled my mind. My wife suggested I just pull into the nearest parking spot, but I saw a “No Parking” sign in front of the spot. “It says ‘No Parking,’” I snapped. I executed an awkward three-point turn and proceeded around the block to enter the parking lot from the right direction. 

During that short drive, I thought about this stressful incident. “Why didn’t my wife tell me I was turning the wrong way?” I thought. “Why did they have to make this parking lot so complicated?” I fumed. “We should have gone somewhere else to eat,” I pouted.

As we walked into the restaurant, I saw the “No Parking” sign again and noticed the smaller print, “Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.”…it was Sunday. My stress, or more accurately, my thoughts in response to my stress had negatively affected my attention. How would that moment or even the rest of my day changed if I would have been able to have different thoughts about that stressful situation?

In the article, “The Power of Rethinking,” Dr. James Gross writes that the way we think about negative experiences and emotions matters. “Rethinking” is the practice of replacing negative thoughts with more positive thoughts. According to Dr. Gross, “… we know that compared to people who don’t use their power of rethinking, people who do use their power of rethinking generally feel more positive emotion and less negative emotion.” He continues, “When negative emotions do come up, they feel less bothered by them and are better able to bounce back from a negative mood. They even seem to enjoy better physical health.”  

We know that stress can be bad for our health. In the article “Life Event, Stress and Illness,” Razali Salleh Mohd outlines the evidence linking stress to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. There’s no doubt stress can be debilitating, but it can also be helpful. Mohd writes, “When the body tolerates stress and uses it to overcome lethargy or enhance performance, the stress is positive, healthy and challenging.”

Our “stress” mindset, whether we think “stress is debilitating”’ or “stress is enhancing,” may affect not only how we experience and cope with stress, but also the impact of stress on our performance and health. In a study conducted at Yale University by Alia Crum, Peter Salovey and Shawn Achor, measured the cortisol levels of individuals when they were not under immediate stress and when they were presented with a stressful event. They were told they would have 10 minutes to prepare for a public speech. Cortisol is known as the body’s main stress hormone. It is released from our adrenal glands when our brains are processing fear, arousal, and emotional stimuli. For individuals who typically had high cortisol levels when under stress, having a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset lowered their cortisol response. For individuals who typically had low cortisol levels when under stress, having a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset increased their cortisol response. These findings suggest that a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset moderates cortisol levels to an appropriate level, possibly enhancing performance and mitigating negative health consequences.

We may be able to better cope with stress by practicing rethinking in the moment and adopting a more positive and accepting mindset towards stress. When we are rethinking, we are practicing cognitive restructuring. According to the American Psychology Association, cognitive restructuring is a skill for carefully examining your thinking when you are feeling upset or distressed. In a handout for their book Treatment for Postdisaster Distress, Jessica Hamblen and Kim Mueser outline five steps for cognitive restructuring, some of which can be adapted for use in a stressful moment and others that can be used after a stressful event to help hone our rethinking skills.

  • Step 1: Describe the situation. Write it down, if you can.
  • Step 2: Identify your strongest and most upsetting feeling. 
  • Step 3: Identify your thoughts about the situation that are underlying your upsetting feelings.
  • Step 4: Evaluate the accuracy of your thoughts.
  • Step 5: Make a decision about whether your thought is accurate or not.

(Handout 27: 5 Steps Of Cognitive Restructuring Instructions (PDF))

It’s important to remember that the effects of stress are real, and they can be debilitating or enhancing. Practicing rethinking or adopting a more positive mindset does not make stress go away. It’s not “all in the way you look at it.” However, we may be able to mitigate some negative effects of stress or, at the very least, stop a stressful event from ruining our whole day by being aware of our thoughts and mindset.


Crum, A. J., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(4), 716–733.

Salleh, Mohd. R. (2008). Life Event, Stress and Illness. The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences : MJMS, 15(4), 9–18.

Thau, L., Gandhi, J., & Sharma, S. (2023). Physiology, Cortisol. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.

The Power of Rethinking | Psychology Today. (n.d.). Retrieved September 12, 2023, from

Treatment for Postdisaster Distress. (n.d.). Https://Www.Apa.Org. Retrieved September 12, 2023, from