The Upside of Stress

Author: Kelly McGonigal

Kelly McGonigal preached the danger of stress to anyone who would listen. For many years. She was a health psychologist working to translate science into practical strategies for everyday life. In 2012 she abruptly changed her mind. McGonigal’s book, The Upside of Stress, challenges the narrative that people should avoid stress.

Researchers led by Abiola Keller published a study in Health Psychology: “Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality.” Participants reporting ‘a lot of stress,’ who perceived ‘stress affects health a lot,’ had a 43% higher risk of dying. However, the high-stress group who didn’t perceive stress as bad had the lowest risk of death among the ~30,000 participants.

The finding shocked McGonigal. She dove into academic literature to discover the nuances of stress.

Everything I had been taught about stress management started from the assumption that stress is dangerous… Once [people] understood how bad stress was, they would reduce their stress, and this would make them healthier and happier. But now, I wasn’t so sure.

Despite her best intentions, McGonigal may have been contributing to the problem. This book is her attempt to course correct.

The link between mind and matter

The Upside of Stress builds on a foundation from Carol Dweck’s Mindset. Both books demonstrate how our beliefs (“mindset”) have real-world consequences. Mindsets, whether growth or fixed, impact actions. Beliefs about stress have physiological consequences.

Stanford professor Alia Crum conducted a study on professional housekeepers. Housekeepers can burn 300 calories an hour. Lifting mattresses to make beds, scrubbing, pushing heavy carts and vacuuming — that’s a lot of work! Most housekeepers, though, are unaware that their work counts as exercise. Crum used a variety of tactics to inform some housekeepers. She then waited four weeks and compared the informed housekeepers to a control group.

Those who had been informed that their work was exercise had lost weight and body fat. Their blood pressure was lower. They even liked their jobs more. They had not made any changes in their behavior outside work. The only thing that had changed was their perception of themselves as exercisers. In contrast, housekeepers in the control group showed none of these improvements.

Crum’s study reinforces the idea that our perception of stress impacts our bodies’ reactions to stress.

A life without stress

Consider typical causes of stress: the death of a loved one, divorce, loss of a job, marriage, moving to a new home, etc. Many are unavoidable. Even minor stressors–hectic schedules, errands, commutes, cooking, cleaning, repairs–are unavoidable. McGonigal writes, “You may find yourself complaining about these experiences as if your life has gone off course.”  As if there is some mythical stress-free version of your life.

Wait. Do you actually want a stress free life? Think about it. The only true path to no stress? No life.

The stress response is more than a basic survival instinct. It is built into how humans operate, how we relate to one another, and how we navigate our place in the world. When you understand this, the stress response is no longer something to be feared. It is something to be appreciated, harnessed, and even trusted.

We are not served by removing stressors. Instead, we should harness stress to create a meaningful life. 

Fight-or-flight is only one stress response

Many discussions about stress are one-dimensional, ignorant of humans’ multiple stress responses and their varying consequences. 

Most people believe that the body’s stress response is uniformly harmful. Stress hormones are seen as toxins to be eliminated, not as potential therapies to be explored. From the conventional point of view, your body betrays you every time your hands get clammy, your heart races, or your stomach twists into knots.

Many stress discussions focus on fight-or-flight. First described by Walter Cannon in cats and dogs, it’s “present in any species with a pulse.”

Their hearts race, their breathing quickens, and their muscles tighten—they become ready for action. Their digestion and other non-emergency physical functions slow or stop. The body prepares for battle by increasing energy reserves and mobilizing the immune system.

If you’re staring down a lion on the African Savannah, the utility of this automatic response is obvious. It’s less useful, however, when staring down next month’s mortgage payment. Fight-or-flight was often useful for our ancestors, but not so much in modern society. This concept, called the “mismatch theory” of stress, leans on the fight-or-flight response. An oversimplification, it completely ignores other stress responses.

Useful stress responses for modern humans

Humans have a variety of responses to stress that, “activate multiple biological systems, each supporting a different coping strategy.” Fight-or-flight is just one response. 

The specific cardiovascular changes, ratio of hormones released, and other aspects of a stress response can vary widely. Differences in your physical stress response can create very different psychological and social responses, an increase in altruism among them.

The challenge response to stress boosts self-confidence, motivates action and promotes learning from experience. The challenge response overlaps with another book that recently influenced me, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow. Csikszentmihalyi studies the link between happiness and the ‘flow’ state–when you’re fully immersed in the task at hand and everything else drifts away. Flow is a great example of a challenge response. McGonigal writes:

Artists, athletes, surgeons, video gamers, and musicians all show this kind of stress response when they’re engaged in their craft or skill. … [T]op performers in these fields aren’t physiologically calm under pressure; rather, they have strong challenge responses. The stress response gives them access to their mental and physical resources, and the result is increased confidence, enhanced concentration, and peak performance.

I’ve been searching for more opportunities to find flow in my life. Now I understand that also means more time spent under stress. It’s a good thing I no longer fear stress!

A tend-and-befriend response promotes courage, caregiving and social relationships. It’s primarily driven by the release of the hormone oxytocin. The hormone encourages people to connect with their support networks. It also makes them more responsive to others, strengthening their most important relationships. This response may kick in when threatened in a social environment like a workplace. It drives people to think about family, friends and pets and protecting their tribes.

How we choose a stress response

Situation, life history and genetics impact stress response. Absent conscious choice, we may end up with an undesirable response.

To explain situational differences, McGonigal offers the example of a trial lawyer’s daily grind. In the courtroom, she’ll have a challenge response to win her case. As her kids fight for attention at home, she’ll have a tend-and-befriend response to make peace. And if a fire alarm sounds at midnight, a fight-or-flight response will help her get her family to safety.

Life histories prime our stress responses. Adult stress responses, specifically with oxytocin, depend on youth experiences like a life-threatening illness or abuse.

Genes also play a role. Some genes increase the tendency for fight-or-flight responses. Others promote tend-and-befriend responses, and some even impact overall sensitivity to stress.

McGonigal also explains how our influences are not strictly deterministic. People can choose how they respond to stress by learning during stress. She writes, “Every moment of stress is an opportunity to transform your stress instincts.” You can program your reaction to face challenges confidently, seek social support instead of withdrawing, and more. 

[Y]our stress response is extremely receptive to the effects of deliberate practice. Whatever actions you take during stress, you teach your body and brain to do spontaneously. If you want to respond to stress differently … there is no better way to change your habits than to practice this new response during stress. 

As with the teachings in Flow and Mindset, awareness creates opportunities for change. Practice helps us apply a growth mindset, increase time in flow and alter our stress responses.

More insights about stress

McGonigal’s book is too deep for me to summarize. Instead of attempting a summary, I’ll simply highlight a few more points that I’d like to take away.

  • There’s a correlation between a meaningful life and a stressful life. You can’t have one without the other.
  • A study by the U.S. Dept of Veterans Affairs found that trying to avoid stress predicted increases in depression, conflict, and negative events over a decade.
  • Reframing mindset around stress response is effective. View anxiety as our bodies gearing up for a challenge, not succumbing to pressure. Turn the nerves into excitement.
  • Sometimes both a challenge response or a threat response could fit. Focus on the resources at hand to promote a challenge response.

The Upside of Stress taught me to think about stress differently. Stress is a tool to be harnessed, not a harm to be avoided. I’m fascinated by the interplay of stress, mindsets, and flow. Together, the three provide a wonderful toolset to understand my psychology and how I can mold my mind to better serve me.

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