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Beliefs about Stress

Beliefs about stress refer to a person’s meta-beliefs and attitudes about stress, such as “stress is bad for my health” or “stress helps my performance.” Researchers often distinguish between general beliefs about stress (i.e., mindsets) and specific situational stress appraisals (Jamieson et al., 2018). People have general beliefs about stress and appraisals of an acute stressor or their stress response. For measures of situational stress appraisals, please see the entry Appraisals of Acute Stress written by Wendy Berry Mendes, Ph.D.

General beliefs (often called mindsets) about stress and emotions can impact a wide range of regulation, affective, interpersonal, and health outcomes (Ford & Gross, 2019; Kilby et al., 2020). For example, people who believed that stress negatively affected their health were more at risk of coronary heart disease 18 years later (Nabi et al., 2013). Similarly, people who experienced high amounts of stress and believed that stress negatively impacted their health showed an increased mortality risk at an 8-year follow-up (Keller et al., 2012). In experimental work, interventions that change people’s beliefs that stress is enhancing and good for you were associated with more adaptive cardiovascular profiles (increased cardiac efficiency and reduced vascular resistance) (Jamieson et al., 2012, 2013) and better psychological well-being (Crum et al., 2020).

 

Although there can be many general beliefs about stress (Kilby et al., 2020), there are two superordinate beliefs that have received much research attention: 1) beliefs about whether stress is good or bad and 2) beliefs about whether stress is controllable or uncontrollable. Here, we suggest three measures developed to assess these beliefs about stress. These measures have been well evaluated in experimental studies and linked to more adaptive self-reported stress responses. For example, a stress mindset moderates the positive association between perceived stress and depressive symptoms such that those with a stress-is-debilitating mindset are more at risk of developing depressive symptoms (Huebschmann & Sheets, 2020). Moreover, a stress-is-enhancing mindset predicts less somatic symptoms and more self-reported physically healthy days (Keech et al., 2018). Despite an increased interest in these belief measures, more research is needed to evaluate their psychometric properties in both the general and specific clinical samples to help establish norm values.

 

 

Stress Mindset Measure (SMM) (evaluations about stress)

The Stress Mindset Measure (SMM) measures the extent a person believes that stress is enhancing (good) or debilitating (bad) for you (Crum et al., 2013). The SMM consists of two versions: beliefs about the nature of stress in general (SMM-G) and beliefs about the nature of a specific stressor (SMM-S). Each SMM scale consists of 8 items. Beliefs that stress is enhancing are positively associated with increased life satisfaction and reduced anxiety and depressive symptoms (Crum et al., 2013).

 

Beliefs About Stress Scale (BASS) (evaluations about stress and controllability)

The Beliefs About Stress Scale (BASS) measures people’s beliefs about whether stress is good or bad and is personally controllable (Laferton et al., 2018). The BASS consists of 15 items and three subscales: negative stress beliefs (8 items), positive stress beliefs (4 items), and controllability beliefs (3 items). The BASS is comparatively new. However, in a 10-day daily diary study, people with high negative stress beliefs showed a stronger negative affect response to experiencing social stress. Moreover, people with higher stress controllability beliefs showed an increase in positive affect throughout the period (Laferton et al., 2020). There is both an English and German version of the BASS.

 

Stress Control Mindset Measure (SCMM) (evaluations about stress)

The Stress Control Mindset Measure (SCMM) measures the extent a person believes that the consequences of stress can be enhancing and the extent a person can use these stress enhancing consequences (Keech et al., 2021). The SCMM consists of 15 items and four subscales: learning and growth (4 items), performance/productivity (4 items), health/vitality (4 items), and general subscale (3 items). A total score can also be calculated. Total SCMM is negatively associated with somatic symptoms and perceived stress and positive associated with better psychological and physical well-being (Keech et al., 2021).

Subjective Thoughts Regarding Stress Scale (STRESS) (evaluations about stress consequences, coping efficacy, and social interactions) 

The Subjective Thoughts Regarding Stress Scale (STRESS) has 19 items that measures a person’s beliefs about: 1) the consequences of stress (extent to which stress generally produces positive or negative consequences; 5 items), 2) coping efficacy (one’s ability to cope with stress; 6 items), and 3) social factors (desire to interact with other people when the person is stressed or when the other people are stressed; 8 items). The STRESS is built upon a systematic review (Kilby, et al., 2020a) and qualitative study (Kilby, et al., 2020b) of stress beliefs, and was subject to standard piloting and psychometric development and validation assessments in an Australian sample (Kilby, et al., 2022). In an experimental design where participants were asked to report their appraisals across two widely used measures of appraisals (measuring challenge appraisals, threat appraisals, primary appraisals, and secondary appraisals), all three subscales of the STRESS were significantly correlated with all appraisals, except for coping efficacy with primary appraisals (Kilby, et al., 2022). For all significant effects, more positive beliefs were associated with stronger challenge appraisal and secondary appraisals, and weaker threat appraisals and primary appraisals. Each appraisal was then regressed onto the three beliefs to identify which beliefs uniquely contributed to which appraisal. More positive consequence beliefs were uniquely associated with weaker threat appraisals and stronger secondary appraisals. More positive coping efficacy beliefs were uniquely associated with weaker threat appraisals and stronger challenge appraisals and secondary appraisals. More positive beliefs about social factors were associated with weaker threat appraisals and primary appraisals. 

 

This scale may be helpful to those trying to understand individual differences in the stress response, particularly where appraisals are of key interest but also in other commonly explored topics such as resilience, coping, and mental and physical health outcomes. There are key opportunities for future research with this scale, for example, in whether pre-identified associations between stress beliefs and the stress response are maintained across cultures, and whether stress beliefs are associated with traumatic outcomes of stress, such as burnout, post-traumatic stress, or vicarious trauma. 

Author(s) and Reviewer(s): Prepared by Darwin Guevarra, PhD. Reviewed by Susanne Fischer, PhD, Nikola Stenzel, PhD, Johannes Laferton, PhD, Alia Crum, PhD, and Chris Kilby, PhD.

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