Could Stress Actually Be Good for You?

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., a Stanford psychologist, says she no longer wants to help people get rid of their stress. Instead, she hopes to teach them to get better at stress.

She suggests you start by answering this question: If you had to sum up how you feel about stress, which statement would be most accurate:

  1. Stress is harmful and should be avoided, reduced and managed.
  2. Stress is helpful and should be accepted utilized and embraced.

McGonigal says that before she thoroughly investigated research on stress, she would have chosen “A,” and you yourself may have selected that option just now.  In fact, 85 percent of Americans say that stress has a negative impact on health, family life and work, she adds.

She used to teach people that stress made you sick, damages your DNA, and even makes you age faster. She advised deep breathing and doing all you could to cut down the stress you were forced to experience.

In fact, many people may have encountered “life events checklists” that asked you to note how many stressful events you’ve encountered in the last year. Each event is assigned some points. For example, the holiday season gives you 12 points while the death of a family member produces 40 points. The higher the score, the more at risk you are for illness and death. The tool is designed to shock people into realizing how important it is to reduce their stress level by reducing life crises. “For many people…this kind of advice is laughable,” McGonigal notes.

Now she’s completely changed her mind and wants to modify your attitude about stress, too.

Stress is not always harmful, and can make us smarter, happier and stronger, she says.  It may even enhance empathy and stimulate compassion. It all depends on your mindset.

McGonigal, author of the book The Upside of Stress, says the key to managing stress is to understand how it works, accept it, and use it to your advantage. The first step involves understanding your mindset or attitude about stress.

She cites a study published in Health Psychology in 2011 that looked at the reported stress levels of 30,000 people. The bad news was that the study found that high levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent.  But the good news was startling: that risk only affected people who believed that stress was hurting their health.  Those who had high stress levels but didn’t see their stress as harmful had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study. In fact, their risk of death was even lower than those who reported having very little stress.

Stress, she says, is what arises when something you care about is at stake.  “Stress and meaning are inextricably linked. You don’t stress out about things you don’t care about, and you can’t create a meaningful life without stress,” she says.

People should develop a mindset about stress that is flexible, and not black or white, McGonigal says. You need to be able to see both sides of stress, the good and the bad, but choose to see the upside, she explains.

But isn’t it hard to change your attitude about stress? Here are a few practical things McGonigal says you can do now:

  • Notice how you think and talk about stress. When do you say to yourself “This is too much”?
  • Watch how you react to other people’s stress; do you tend to become anxious, absorb the stress, or avoid those interactions?
  • Turn nerves into excitement, and a threat into a challenge.
  • Turn avoidance into an attitude of “I can do this.”
  • Focus on others and be kind to them.
  • Allow stress to awaken in you the core human strengths of courage, connection and growth.
  • Allow yourself to be changed by the experience of stress.
  • Maintain a basic sense of trust in yourself, and a connection to something bigger than yourself.
  • Discover ways to draw meaning out of suffering, to find an upside to adversity.

“The goal is to hold a more balanced view of stress, to fear it less, to trust yourself to handle it and to use it as a resource for engaging with life,” she suggests. “People who believe stress is enhancing are less depressed and more satisfied with their lives than those who believe stress is harmful.”

 

Learn more:  The Upside of Stress, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., Avery, 2015.