At 21, Wendy Berry Mendes was coming down from a ballet jump, slipped on a wet spot on the floor and fell, tearing the ligaments in her right foot.
It was a career-ending injury. Until then, Mendes had ascended steadily up the ladder of professional ballet. She started taking classes at six years old and went on to perform professionally, first in a Los Angeles company and then with the Pennsylvania Ballet Company, where it all ended.
Ballet, like any intense sport, is grueling. “You have to be so strong in terms of your mental state. There is an awareness of your body but there is also lots of suppression—you may be in great pain, but you dance through it,” Mendes said. “There’s somewhere you have to get mentally where you keep going when your body simply does not want to go anymore.”
Once she realized she couldn’t keep dancing, Mendes went back to school, studying math and then psychology. When she decided to get her Ph.D., she drew inspiration from her experience in ballet, constantly convincing her body to keep working. How, she wondered, do our mindsets influence our physiological reactions? What’s the interplay between mind and body?
“There are two guiding themes in my lab,” Mendes said. In 2004, she founded the Emotion, Health and Psychophysiology Lab at Harvard University, where she taught for six years. Since 2010, she’s run it from the University of San Francisco.
The first theme: stress and behavior. Mendes and her colleagues look at how emotions, particularly stress, are manifested in our brains and bodies, and how they can influence our decision-making. “One of the burning questions is: How can stress be modified to work in our favor?”
In one study, Mendes and her colleagues recruited students who were about to take a graduate school entrance exam. Those who were told that anxiety could help their performance tested better than those who weren’t. Even months later, when they took the test again, that small mindset change—thinking of stress as a positive rather than a negative—boosted their scores.
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“How we perceive our world is actually as powerful, if not more, than the world we live in,” Mendes said.
The lab’s second focus concerns intergroup relations and stigma—how people of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds communicate with each other, and what role anxiety plays in their interactions.
Often, people are unaware of their own stereotyping. When they meet someone who doesn’t fit the mold, they think—and self-report—that they have no negative judgments. But their bodies often tell a different story. They show signs of stress, like constricted arteries, higher blood pressure and less bodily activity: they literally freeze. They perform worse, too.
But Mendes has found that familiarity can do a lot to change these reactions. The more people interact with others, the less they judge them.
Mendes has used her research to her personal advantage. “I am probably one of the most introverted people you’ll ever meet,” she said. While a professor at Harvard, she lectured to huge groups of smart, challenging students—“not on my list of favorite things to do,” she said.
But her research suggested that, through a change in mindset, she could shift her emotions and physiology away from the state of dread, threat and stress that accompanied lecturing. Research shows that novel environments increase negative stress, so Mendes made sure to familiarize herself with the lecture hall in advance. Tokens and symbols of loved ones can help, so she made sure to arm herself with reminders of her social support system.
“My research helped me get to a point where I could shift that bad stress response to a more positive stress response,” she said. Indeed: she was named one of Harvard students’ favorite professors for five years straight.
A key take-home point of Mendes’s research, then, is that thinking differently about anxiety can make it work for you instead of against you.
“Not all stress reactions are bad for you. People shouldn’t be afraid of stress. Stress helps motivate you,” she said. “I think our culture has disparaged stress so much that we think this relaxed, calm state should be our goal state.”
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The negative side effects come if you can’t recover from stress afterward. Staying in that hyper-alert, elevated physiological state “can be incredibly damaging to your health,” Mendes said. It interferes with sleep and eating choices, and can damage your cardiovascular system.
But how to shift into a positive stress state in the moment, and then out of a stress state once the moment is over? “The worst thing you can try to do is suppress,” Mendes said. That is, don’t push down the stressful feelings; acknowledge they’re there and try to move through them, not mow them over.
Finding a task or situation that helps you relax is a good idea, too. That activity is different for everyone—some people like yoga; others like running; still others find television, music, or reading relaxing.
As for Mendes? The night we spoke, to shift out of her hectic workday mindset, she was taking her nine-year-old daughter to the ballet.
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