The Upside of Stress

Professor Kelly McGonigal teaches a University course based on a book she authored, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. McGonigal’s personal “aha” moment related to stress followed the results of a large study of 30,000 American adults done in 1998. Participants were asked at the outset both how much stress they had been exposed to during the prior year as well as whether they believed stress was harmful to health. After the original survey, researchers kept in touch and studied certain health metrics of participants over the following eight years. Two takeaways came from the research, the second of which spurred McGonigal’s interest in the subject. First, there was a correlation between those experiencing high stress over time and negative health impacts. Those with high stress exposure had an increased risk of dying of 43%. However, the results suggested this risk to health of stress was connected more so to the underlying beliefs people had about stress than the stress itself. That is, those that believed stress was bad and experienced stress were more likely to have poorer health outcomes. Whereas those that experienced stress but didn’t think stress was bad had healthier outcomes. McGonigal notes that the research even showed that those with beliefs that not just accepted stress as normal but embraced it had better health outcomes even under stress than those experiencing little to no stress at all.

Stress isn’t unhealthy on its own, our beliefs about it are. McGonigal dove into the direction of trying to understand how a belief system built around difficulties as desirable was healthy. It struck her as counterintuitive to the cultural messaging that suggests stress as something to avoid. Several surveys show that one of the few things we agree on is that stress is unhealthy. In surveys by both Harvard’s School of Public Health and the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey 80-85% of people see their personal stress as having a negative impact on their lives and as unhealthy. There seems to be a massive disconnect between our beliefs about stress and reality. McGonigal writes, “The latest science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. It helps you learn and grow. It can even inspire courage and compassion.” Moreover, McGonigal notes, “Embracing stress can make you feel more empowered in the face of challenges. It can enable you to better use the energy of stress without burning out. It can help you turn stressful experiences into a source of social connection rather than isolation. And finally, it can lead you to new ways of finding meaning in suffering.”

Our beliefs matter because they impact our behaviors. If we see stress as bad, we become anxious when we experience it. We don’t like feeling anxious and seek to reduce our exposure to the things that cause it. Anxiety leads to avoidance. Stress becomes a signal to get away from what is seen as a problem. When stress is seen as a problem, avoidance is our coping strategy. We either physically remove ourselves from situations or seek distraction in entertainment, food, or alcohol. None of these fixes the underlying issue and most pose problems for our health. All of these lead to giving up our personal control. The opposite of avoidance is action which is what those that have a positive view of stress are more likely to do. They see problems as something to solve. They accept that stress is inescapable. Stress is a fact of life. The best at stress see it as not just everywhere but a challenge to be overcome. They look forward to it as it represents an opportunity to improve one’s capabilities. They seek constructive approaches to take action over something within their control. They are more open to asking for help. They will strategize. They will look for information and take small steps to make progress. Our beliefs lead to behaviors. The beliefs breed the outcomes we expect. When we see stress as a struggle to be avoided, it festers. Whereas when we view stress as something that serves our development, we lean in and take action. Which approach is more likely to meet with progress? Which makes you feel better?

There’s lots of positive physical benefits that show up thanks to stress. We should want to go to the university of adversity and get our doctorate on difficulties. Stress can set us up for success. It prepares us physically to perform at our best. Stress starts a physiological process which begins with our sympathetic nervous system. It recognizes stress and readies us to respond by deepening our breathing to ensure more oxygen is delivered to our blood and heart, it speeds up our heart rate to move essential things like oxygen, fat, and sugar to our body, our liver dumps fat and sugar into our blood which heightens our energy, hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released which help our muscles and mind use the other things our body is dong to function at its best. These changes are done to help us constructively face a challenge. With all of these physiological changes we have the ability to perform physically in ways we couldn’t imagine. Super-strength that is seen under life and death situations follows the stress response. As part of the response it’s not only physical strength and energy but mental fortitude. Stress can create intense focus. Our attention becomes under our command and dialed in. We ignore distractions and focus on the task at hand. We’re also able to process more information, faster. Our pupils dilate letting in more light and even our hearing improves. We can get a bit of a rush from hormone levels of dopamine and testosterone increasing which may contribute to confidence boosts. McGonigal notes we may experience some of the positive effects of our stress response when watching an exciting sporting event.

Stress doesn’t have to leave us in a mess. Stress can help us be our best. Anthony Robbins likes to say, our biggest problem is thinking that we should not have any problems. Similarly, our flaw with stress is an underlying belief that stress is something to avoid. Experiencing stress isn’t a weakness. Stress can serve. Though the physiological response to stress can contain many of these benefits, our response is influenced by our interpretation of the cause of stress. Scientists make a distinction between a threat and a challenge response. Where we see the stress inducing situation as a threat our physiological response differs slightly. With threat our body anticipates physical confrontation and potential harm. As a result some of the physiological changes are directed to protect. For example, blood vessels can constrict in order to reduce potential blood loss. Our immune system may be triggered and inflammatory responses promoted. This type of response can have negative long-term health conditions. On the other hand, when we see the stress as a challenge, our body responds more like we’re vigorously exercising. Blood flows freely through dilated vessels enhancing energy and endurance. A challenge response serves activity and long-term health. Our emotional actions, too, differ based on the interpretation of stress. Under threat, we feel fear, doubt, even shame. It tends to lead to feelings of anxiety and avoidance. We may also have anger which all conspire to heighten our sensitivity to negative events. However, with stress as a challenge we feel energized and excited, even confident. We’re less worried about avoiding harm and motivated to move towards an outcome. We willingly engage with our environment as a challenge. The emotional response to threat or challenge impacts what we learn from an event. From threats we learn to become sensitive to the things that triggered the threat. We may have heightened reactivity to these situations in the future. Contrarily, a challenge response results in learning about our capabilities. We build resilience and a willingness to pursue in the face of struggle from challenge experiences.

McGonigal notes that an abundance of research supports the idea that the greatest factor influencing the kind of stress response we have is driven by the individual’s thoughts. How we view our own stress influences how our body reacts. If we see stress as bad, our stress response is more likely to be that of threat. If we success as normal, manageable, and even welcomed, our stress response is that of challenge. Additional research suggests that whatever our tendency may be, we can work to change so that we view stress constructively such that our physiological response, too, is more supportive. Our interpretation of stress involves both an assessment of the situation and our capabilities. Where we believe the situation is difficult and beyond our capabilities, we shrink into the threat response. Where we believe that we have the competence to manage we develop confidence and fuel a challenge response. To best beat the test of stress we need to believe the situation is manageable and have confidence in our ability to perform.

To prepare ourselves to strive under stress instead of succumbing we can work to develop a pause to guide our thoughts when we encounter a challenge. If we can take a moment to gather ourselves as we see ourselves surrounded by stress we can give ourselves a chance to focus on our resources and our past experiences. Doing so, reinforces our belief that the situation is both manageable and that we have what it takes to perform. This sets us up for success. Take a moment to reflect on your strengths. What skills have you developed that will be helpful in the present? What past obstacles have you faced and overcome? How have you prepared and improved in recent months and years that puts you in a position to better handle today’s challenge? You can also work to draw strength from the support of relationships. Who else believes in you? What would those closest say to you to help you gain confidence in your ability to face today’s challenge? When has past stress led to improved personal performance for you?

McGonigal suggests a three step exercise we can try at work or at home to help us confront challenge. First, acknowledge the sensations of stress as they arise. Accept without judgment what is going on. Develop the awareness of your body’s reaction to its environment. From awareness of stress, we are encouraged to develop an appreciation for what our body is trying to do for us. Our physiological response reflects that our body cares about the situation. It wants to prepare us to perform. Take a moment to reflect on why this situation matters to you. Appreciate the value you’re placing on doing well and remind yourself of your strengths and past performances. Seek to reassure yourself that you have the resources and abilities to succeed. The final step involves using the physiological effects of your stress response to fuel constructive activity. Don’t try to stop them. Don’t try to slow down and decrease the effects of the stress. Embrace these feelings and sensation as energizing and exciting which will fuel your focus and effort. Seek to connect the challenge to action. What can you do right now that will reflect your goals and values in this situation? The more you can practice these steps, the more you can positively work to influence constructively your stress response as that of a challenge.

When we see stress as a challenge we can grow under a load. As Winston Churchill observed, “Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.” Put another way by William Ward, “Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” Accepting the upside of stress we can see difficulties as desirable.