If you’re a basketball fan, you might be familiar with Kevin Love, power forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Love is a highly accomplished athlete: he’s a five-time NBA All-Star, has been to the Olympics, and won an NBA championship with the Cavaliers in 2016. He’s also the son of an NBA player. He’s been recognized for his achievements in the sport for almost his entire life. As a health psychologist who researches how stress impacts our health, I had the honor of having a dialogue with him on a radio event where I learned about his experience with identity threat stress. It started with a cry for help from his nervous system.
In 2017, during a home game against the Atlanta Hawks, Love suffered a panic attack. In an essay he shared a few months after the incident, he described a perfect storm of stress and pressure leading up to the game: interpersonal issues with his family, trouble sleeping, and high expectations for his performance in the game that he feared he couldn’t meet. His struggle began as soon as the game did. He felt exhausted and winded.
His game was off, he kept missing baskets, and he felt like his brain was spinning. Finally, he left the court with a racing heart and ended up at the hospital, getting a battery of tests. He was fine. But at the next game, the same thing happened.
Love started therapy after his panic attacks, and realized that a big part of the immense stress he was experiencing was due to how tightly yoked his identity was to his profession and his performance. He shared his own experience with the hope that it would help other athletes—or anyone whose self-worth is strongly shaped by their performance in one particular arena of their lives. His point was that if you identify as a great basketball player and have a bad game, you’re devastated. It’s hard to recover from. He wrote, “When I wasn’t performing, I didn’t feel like I was succeeding as a person.”
The stress of identity threats
When you feel your personhood is under attack, and you have all your eggs in one basket, this is a recipe for feeling threatened. Maybe what you find most valuable about yourself (or believe that others find valuable about you) is your ability to be a good parent. Maybe it’s your capacity to be a high earner. Maybe it’s that you always produce great results on deadline. Whatever it is, you may find that the normal bumps and snags that occur in these roles affect you more strongly and more frequently. When who you are is on the line, your status is threatened, and your body will respond as though it’s being attacked.
There’s a cultural message we receive that shapes our values unconsciously, which is that we have to achieve, acquire, and perform exceptionally to have value. It leads to us feeling low self-worth with any setback—especially when it’s tied to one outcome (hit this deadline, make this sale, publish this study...fill in the blank!).
The solution? Diversify.
I don’t mean to do more. Instead, remember all the other things you already are. None of us are just one thing. As Love put it, “What you do for a living doesn’t have to define who you are. Remind yourself of the things you care about, and the other roles you play in life, besides the one at stake.
Take Steven, a new mayor overwhelmed by the weight of the role. As he worked through his second and then third terms, Steven used this to pull himself back from a chronic stress cycle. So many people attached his identity to “mayor.” It felt like that was why they valued and respected him. When he saw himself that way, the prospect of losing that title was devastating. So when big challenges came up at work—ones that might influence future elections—Steven managed his own stress by reminding himself of everything else he was. He was a wonderful father and a loving husband. He was an active community member, contributing to several boards and volunteer organizations. He was a dedicated son who managed his elderly parents’ healthcare and finances. His identity—and his value to the world at a large—had many facets. It could not be reduced to just one role.
The shift: lean into values affirmations
A powerful tactic here is to use values affirmations, which can reorient yourself to your inner compass and remember everything you already do. Some people feel that self-affirmations—positive statements about yourself—are corny and pointless, and feel self-conscious doing it. I get it—affirmations remind me of Stuart Smalley, a character from a famous Saturday Night Live comedy skit who would say each week, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” But this isn’t the kind of affirmation I’m talking about. The science shows that values affirmations—where you write down the core, driving values in your life, and then list all the ways you are currently living and embodying those values—are quite powerful. These are much more effective than general positive statements about ourselves (sorry, Stuart!). When we feel our personal integrity and ego are threatened, we can blunt the stress by reminding ourselves of our core values and anyways we are already working toward what we most care about.
The research on this is exciting: values affirmations help improve students’ grades, especially for Black and Hispanic students, and even increase medical residents’ performance. They can blunt stress hormones, such as cortisol and catecholamines.
David Creswell, a researcher from Carnegie Mellon University, tested the role of affirmation: Women with breast cancer wrote about coping with cancer, once a week for three weeks, and their essays were analyzed for self-affirmations. For example, their affirmation could be “I prayed more than I ever have. Prayer has always been a personal strength of mine.” Those who wrote more self-affirming statements had better health three months later. He then wanted to test if affirmations can be seen in brain activity, and found that value affirmations activate the brain’s reward areas, just like thinking about sex or happy memories. With repeated practice, thinking this way inoculates you against a threat response—and prepares you to see stressful scenarios as a challenge.
With a solid foundation of where your worth and value really come from, you are much more able to physiologically mount a challenge response to stress, and to then recover from stress more quickly. This ability to see yourself with a multifaceted identity is a huge ingredient in stress resilience: with this self-knowledge, something threatening one part of your life can no longer threaten your whole being so completely. When your core sense of self-worth is validated or diversified, you won’t be threatened so easily by stress. Instead, you can be challenged by it.
Elissa Epel is a professor and vice chair in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UC San Francisco. This article has been excerpted from her book The Stress Prescription: Seven Days to More Joy and Ease. Copyright © 2022. Available from PenguinLife.