• Janna Lauer

Stress Management Part 3 of 5: Growth Mindset and Play

In our society, it is part of the normal human experience to want to grow and change, as evidenced by our collective tradition of New Year’s Resolutions, the Self-Help genre, #goals and the like. However, our success with that growth is not a foregone conclusion. Rather it is determined by many things, including our mindset and the ways we provide opportunities for ourselves to grow.

There are two basic mindsets according to Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford. In her research and 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she discusses a fixed mindset vs a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that the skills and abilities that they have now are what they were born with and no amount of effort will bring about change. This can often be seen in language and actions such as “I’m bad at math but good at writing” or not wanting to go to a yoga class “because I’m not flexible”.

Growth mindset, on the other hand, emphasizes that the amount of effort a person applies to develop a skill or ability will predict their success. This mindset is reinforced by the science of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change. People with this mindset believe that they are capable of learning and changing via time and effort. Their language or actions often look like “I am getting better at speaking French” or being hesitant but open to trying an art class because “I currently find drawing to be challenging, but believe I will get better with practice”. As you can probably already see, these mindsets can have major impacts on stress management and resilience.

Woman hiking in the rainforest.
Playing as "the explorer" in El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico.

When discussing rest and stress management, I defined

stress as a misalignment of actions and goals or values. Another way of looking at stress, is to see it as a misalignment of skills and tasks. When a person with a fixed mindset encounters a task that is beyond their abilities they are left frustrated and distressed. And unfortunately, a person with a fixed mindset will often give up and feel defeated because they do not see possibilities for how to surmount the challenge. On the other hand, a person with a growth mindset has the space to improve their skills to meet the challenge and complete the task.

Notice that a growth mindset is not blind positivity. It leaves space to acknowledge your challenges and weaknesses, but it also does not make them absolute or irreversible. Challenges and stress will always exist in your life at varying levels. A growth mindset is the only thing fully within your control that can prepare you for those challenges.

Now the next question is, how to move from a fixed to a growth mindset? How do you create opportunities for yourself to grow? This is where play comes in. Play is something many adults neglect, and has been regulated to the realm of childhood, but it is fundamental to our growth. And our growth should not end when we reach adulthood. Play, or doing something for little to no other purpose other than your enjoyment, allows us to explore and try new things when the stakes are low or non-existent and provides opportunities for practicing growth. It helps us to focus on the process of growing and learning well, rather than focusing on the final outcome.

A pair of lace flower earrings, two pairs of leather earrings with metallic and beaded accents.
Playing as "the artist/creator"

Perhaps you already have hobbies or do other activities that you would consider playful. For those who are feeling a little more stuck, I would suggest determining your play personality. In his 2010 book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Dr. Stuart Brown writes about 8 different play personalities: the joker, the kinesthete, the explorer, the competitor, the director, the collector, the artist/creator, and the storyteller. Just as we have different learning styles we have different ways we like to have fun. There is not a “right” way to play, as long as you enjoy what you are doing you are on track for effective stress management.

By playing regularly you will get used to trying new things and learning new skills, this approach/mindset can then be applied to other situations in your life as you get more and more comfortable. Then when a challenge arises, you may find it easier to stop and say, “This is tough, but so am I” and approach the problem as an opportunity to learn something new, rather than an overwhelmingly stressful situation.

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