Education resources › Blog › Crisis can be an opportunity: Challenge vs threat mindset

Crisis can be an opportunity - Challenge vs threat mindset

Crisis can be an opportunity: Challenge vs threat mindset

4 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset
  • Stress management & well-being

When faced with a crisis, what is the first thought that comes to your mind? For most people, it probably won’t be “this is a good thing”. It’s human nature to panic in a crisis, which can cause us to miss out on opportunities that may have led to success. However, people are beginning to realise that, sometimes, a crisis can be used to your advantage. It all depends on point of view: instead of viewing a stressful situation as a threat, how can we see it as a challenge? And how will this benefit us?

A challenge vs threat mindset

A situation can be interpreted as either a challenge or a threat, depending on an individual’s mindset. A stressful situation can be viewed…

  • As something we have the resources to overcome.
  • As an opportunity to build on our skills.
  • Or as a crisis we can’t get through as we do not possess the necessary abilities and may, as a result, face a loss. 

Those who react well under pressure are said to have a ‘challenge mindset’ whereas those who react negatively possess a ‘threat mindset’. When faced with a crisis, those with a challenge mindset may experience an increase in adrenaline, whereas those with a threat mindset may feel an increase in their stress levels. Whichever state you are in has significant consequences as they have been found to influence how much effort you put in, your concentration levels, and how well you perform under pressure.

What does the research say?

Researchers at the University of Staffordshire have conducted many studies aimed at investigating challenge and threat states. Their research, whilst focused on sport psychology, can very easily be applied to education. The two fields share many requirements for success, from hard and consistent work, to having the ability to perform under pressure. Similar to the nerves that athletes may face before a competition, students can experience stress throughout the school year, and especially during exams. 

The evidence of this research shows that those who succeeded when put under pressure were more likely to develop resilience that would help them face stressful situations in the future. Promoting a challenge state allows individuals to change their perspective of a crisis from negative to positive. This can help them to avoid falling victim to the negative effects of a threat state.

These findings demonstrate the importance of encouraging students to view every crisis as an opportunity: not only will it help them succeed, it can also help them develop skills that will be useful to them later on in life.

Equip your school staff with the skills to best support their students’ well-being and stress management in the lead up to exams.

How can you develop a challenge mindset?

There are a few key ways to transform your mindset. They can help develop motivated students that are ready to face crises. They include:

  • Believing you have the necessary skills and resources Take a step back and assess your skillset. More often than not, stress clouds our judgements and we are usually more able to handle the situation than we first thought.
  • Feeling in control of the event  Whilst you can’t be 100% sure of the outcome, you should be aware that you are in full control of your actions and how they influence a situation.
  • Surrounding yourself with supportive people – We often look to the people in our lives for comfort or advice in stressful situations. Make sure that the people around you are optimistic and that they share this optimism with you. When it comes from someone you trust, it’s more likely to calm your nerves.
  • Reminding yourself of previous experiences You will probably have faced similar situations in the past. If you have persevered and succeeded, use it to remind yourself that no crisis is impossible to get through. If it ended poorly, use the lessons it taught you to make this situation a success.

Those with a threat mindset may feel isolated in the face of crisis. They often focus on what they may lose and become overwhelmed with nerves and worry. Sometimes, a crisis can throw a spanner in the works and disrupt someone’s process towards their goals. This can make these goals seem unattainable and as a result, lead them to withdraw from the situation and make unfortunate decisions. 

Students can face a multitude of crises and stressful situations, from exams to university acceptances. They are almost always performing under pressure, resulting in high levels of nerves and continuous worrying. To help students adopt a challenge mindset, it is important to encourage them to follow the tips mentioned above. More specifically, you can help them identify what they can control about their situation (in the case of exams, for example, how much revision they do), remind them of what they stand to gain if they perform well, and be someone they can rely on to calm their nerves and put everything into perspective.

Final thoughts

If you believe you have a threat mindset and it is negatively impacting you, don’t worry; it can be changed. Our mindset and thoughts are malleable, and in order to flourish and perform to the highest potential, you should work towards adopting a challenge mindset.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

Follow on XConnect on LinkedIn