Ease Stress by Getting Curious

Written By

By Alison Horstmeyer


It is generally understood that one’s effectiveness and productivity are paramount to organizational success in the workplace. A key factor undermining effectiveness and productivity is stress, the feeling that the demands you face exceed the resources you are able to mobilize in response. When stress goes unchecked, it can turn into burnout—the sense of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that lowers your motivation and job performance while increasing your negativity toward yourself and others. Stress also erodes your productivity and engagement while increasing your risks for substance use, absenteeism, and turnover.

Developing a practice of curiosity can help ease your stress and anxiety, potentially helping you avoid burnout. This article outlines four ways that curiosity can diffuse stress, and provides practical exercises to encourage curiosity in your work.


What is curiosity?

Organizations such as Google, Aetna, and Johnson & Johnson offer mindfulness training to leaders and employees to improve stress management and productivity. As of 2015, over 12,000 Aetna employees participated in company-sponsored mindfulness programs. The company reported an average of 62 minutes per employee per week of enhanced productivity, yielding $3,000 savings annually per employee.

Although these benefits are promising, implementing a company-wide mindfulness program is not always possible, especially given the executive sponsorship, infrastructure, and training dollars required to do so. An easier, more cost effective, and yet highly potent intervention is promoting a practice of curiosity.

Curiosity is generally defined as the recognition, pursuit, and desire to explore novel, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous events. A study by Merck KGaA highlighted four central components of curiosity:

Curiosity model 1-01

1.     Inquisitiveness: Exploring unfamiliar or complex situations to figure out what is really happening.

2.     Creativity: Challenging current understandings of a situation, allowing ideas to cross-pollinate, and composing new solutions.

3.     Openness: Accepting and suspending judgment for new ideas. Being open helps us to notice subtleties others may miss and use these to spawn novel ideas.

4.     Disruption tolerance: Being able to entertain ideas that advance the organization, even if they seem unconventional and somewhat risky. Disruption tolerance is particularly needed when we are prone to reach for low-risk, non-creative solutions that may offer little if any benefits.


Four effects of curiosity

Effect 1: Makes challenges more surmountable

When people practice curiosity, overcoming obstacles is reframed as stimulating. Individuals may more readily mobilize to acquire the requisite resources for dealing with a given situation and consequently believe there is a possibility of gain. When people perceive situations in these ways, it helps to reduce stress. Curiosity helps them frame challenges as ways to gain valued experience―whether negative or positive―which strengthens their commitment to work through novel, complex, and uncertain situations.


Effect 2: Increases self-directed regulation

Research has indicated that inner-directed or self-determined people recognize, pursue, and flourish in challenge, excitement, and pleasure. Curious individuals tend to be more inner-directed, meaning they view their behaviors as being inspired by their values and interests rather than being directed by external forces such as external rules or social pressures. When individuals are curious, they are less likely to revert to self-preservation or survival behaviors, those non-adaptive behaviors that can impair sound decision-making and diminish effectiveness. This is because non-adaptive behaviors are informed by preconceived notions or false understandings, which can trigger higher levels of stress.


Effect 3: Lowers defensiveness

As a result of increased self-directed regulation, curious individuals faced with challenges are less likely to use defensive and avoidant responses that seek to circumvent failure. They’re also more likely to use active, adaptive coping. Active coping styles involve a perceived lower potential for loss and less negative self-perceptions, which means they are able to encounter the experience without feeling threatened or having to defend themselves. Accordingly, curious individuals not only have less need for survival behaviors but are typically more resilient because of their adaptive coping capabilities.


Effect 4: Activates mindfulness

The non-defensive openness to experiences that are associated with curiosity reflects a state of mindfulness. The degree to which an individual is mindful reflects the degree to which he or she is sensitive and aware of what is presently occurring, both internally and externally, in a relaxed and nonjudgmental manner. People who exhibit mindfulness tend to collaborate better, sustain higher levels of performance, and navigate stress more effectively.


Author’s contemplation of her curiosity

As I consider the role curiosity has played in both my personal and professional life, I have experienced first-hand the catalyzing nature of my curiosity which has led to my continuous self-evolution and self-expansion. Without curiosity, I do not believe I would have been able to integrate or digest both successes and failures in a way that fostered a growth mindset.

On the personal side, my pursuit of a doctorate in the Mind-Body Medicine program at Saybrook is in large part driven by my intrinsically motivated quest for knowledge, and for traversing the unknown by connecting seemingly disparate sources of research to generate potentially novel insights to deliver a meaningful scholarly contribution. Within this process, I must remain disciplined in staying open to what emerges and set aside my bias, preconceived notions, and assumptions as well as embrace the feedback from my dissertation committee without getting triggered into an anxious, defensive, or reactive mindset.

In my professional career, I recently departed the familiarity of my intrapreneurial corporate executive identity and into the uncertain entrepreneurial founder role building my consultancy. This year of transition has been fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty. It has required that I, for example, network and collaborate with people in a range of diverse industries in which I had no previous relationships, reframe delays or setbacks on potential consulting engagements, and consistently employ mind-body practices to transmute anxiety and fear.

Change, disruption and growth are uncomfortable. On the other hand, there is no growth in comfort. Curiosity fuels the exploration of and engagement with the new terrain I am now traversing, and to stay with the unfolding through the peaks and valleys.


Putting curiosity into practice

The following exercises may help you access and develop your curiosity.

  1. Using a current business challenge or issue, facilitate a team meeting in which the team explores the questions listed below. Defer your own judgments and refrain from answering the questions until all members have individually contributed to each question:
  • What are five potential solutions to the issue?
  • What assumptions are you making based in current reality instead of past experiences?
  • What information do you still need?
  • What resources could you use to get the information?
  1. Consider a situation in which someone has offended you or you felt excluded. Apply the four attributes of curiosity to consider how you could reframe the situation. As suggested by author Ryan Niemiec, could you reinterpret the situation to see the other individual as someone who needs positive growth?
  2. At the end of each day, write down how you used your curiosity in ways that contributed to a positive or productive outcome. After two weeks, review what you wrote each day. What patterns do you see? How can these insights help you in the future to more successfully navigate challenging situations?


Cultivating curiosity

Stress is a growing concern in organizations that erodes effectiveness and productivity of executives and employees alike. By cultivating curiosity, specifically the attributes of inquisitiveness, openness, creativity, and disruption tolerance, you may find your stress level decreasing as challenges become more achievable.



About the author

Alison Horstmeyer, M.S., MBA, is currently a student at Saybrook University where she is working towards her Ph.D. in Mind-Body Medicine. Her research at Saybrook and fellowship at the USC Center for Third Space Thinking focuses on curiosity and evidence-based motivational constructs. She is a former Fortune 500 corporate executive and currently works as an executive consultant, certified coach, certified -EQ inventory facilitator and humanistic researcher. She can be reached at [email protected]