Thinking like a Norwegian (and the power of mindsets)

I’m now back in the UK after my year in Barcelona, and adjusting to the second lockdown in London. There’s clearly no quick fix for the stresses we’re facing, but I have been heartened by a piece I recently wrote for the Observer (the Guardian‘s Sunday paper) on some ways that we can reframe our feelings and increase our resilience.

As I explain in my forthcoming book, our interpretations of anxious feelings can often determine their mental and physical consequences. If we expect stress to be harmful, then we see a sharper fluctuations in cortisol, greater inflammation, and greater strain on the heart, caused by the constriction of blood vessels in the limbs. This “fight or flight” response evolved to help us to escape physical threats and avoid severe injuries.

if we interpret our feelings of anxiety as a useful source of energy and motivation, however, we essentially by-pass some of these changes. Instead of the sharp hormonal fluctuations, we can experience a more muted change in cortisol levels and the release of more beneficial anabolic hormones that encourage tissue growth and repair, along with a healthier cardiovascular response. These seem to reflect “challenge” response, which evolved to help to enhance our physical performance for difficult, but surmountable, events with a low risk of injury.

In the long-term, these expectations can become a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy – people with the “stress is enhancing” mindset are less likely to die of heart disease, even if they experience a high amount of stress in their daily lives, than people with the “stress is damaging” mindset. Fortunately, there are now some proven ways to reinterpret your stresses, and these appear to be especially effective for highly anxious individuals who may struggle with other interventions.

The Observer/Guardian piece builds on these findings with the research of Kari Leibowitz, who spent a year examining the ways that people in northern Norway cope with the two-month long “polar night”. In line with the research on stress, she found that it all depended on their mindsets and the ways they interpreted the challenges of the winter.

Of all the pieces I’ve written, this has attracted the warmest response from readers, with more than 1,000,000 views in the first week and more than 10,000 shares on social media. You can read it at the Guardian, here: Dreading a dark winter lockdown? Think like a Norwegian

Related to this article, I’ve recently written a piece in BBC Worklife on the secrets of “healthy neurotics” – people who have a tendency for anxiety but channel that energy into productive behaviour. Interestingtly, the latest research suggests that these people are finding it easier to cope with the pandemic than other personality types. You can read the piece here: Why ‘healthy neurotics’ can thrive in stressful times

My third piece this month looks at another kind of mindset – the “paradox mindset”.

While most of us may naturally shy away from the potential confusion of weighing up contradictory ideas, some people relish the challenges of juggling the two opposing thoughts. Writing with Loizos Heracleous, an organisational scientist at Warwick Business School, I examinded the evidence that the paradox mindset can fuel creativity, productivity and innovative decision making. You can read it here: Why the ‘paradox mindset’ is the key to success

If you are interested in the benefits of thinking in contradictions, you may also like my piece for Aeon: A touch of absurdity can help to wrap your mind around reality

Finally, if you are a New Scientist subscriber, you might enjoy my recent piece on filler words – ums, ers, huhs etc – and their unexpected importance for sophisticated communication (pay wall). I also appear on the NS Weekly Podcast discussing the piece (free for all).