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Great News About Stress

Recent research on stress is radically changing how the psychology and health care fields think about stress and how stress affects the body. For decades we’ve thought of stress as the enemy. We’ve been alarmed (and alarmed others) with the multiple ways that stress negatively affects health. New research tells us that stress is not always harmful. We’re beginning to learn the ways in which stress can be beneficial, and what we can do to change our relationship with stress so that it is beneficial.

In her TED talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” and her book, The Upside of Stress, (both of which I can’t recommend highly enough) health psychologist and Stanford researcher Kelly McGonigal synthesizes recent research on stress and offers ideas for how to “get good at stress.” While we usually think of the body’s high-alert fight-or-flight response when we think about stress, there are actually several different kinds of stress response:

“…. there is no one uniform physical stress response that is triggered

by all stressful situations. The specific cardiovascular changes, ratio

of hormones released, and other aspects of a stress response can vary

widely…… For example, a challenge response increases self-confidence,

motivates action, and helps you learn from experience; while a

tend-and-befriend response increases courage, motivates caregiving,

and strengthens your social relationships.” (Upside, p. 49)

Some types of stress response help you “rise to the challenge,” connect with other people, and learn and grow.

One of the most exciting aspects of emerging research on stress, to me, is that how you think about stress can influence whether it is harmful or beneficial. When people believe stress is harmful, stress is likely to negatively impact their health. But people who view stress as energizing can experience positive health benefits from stress. (Read her book to see some fascinating research related to this.) The Upside of Stress is a lot about developing a mindset that will evoke a beneficial stress response.

One thing we can do to transform stress into the beneficial challenge response is to frame it as excitement. Rather than trying to calm down or make stress go away, accepting stress and choosing to see it as energizing can transform it into a challenge response.

McGonigal’s work emphasizes consciously working with meaning and values. She defines stress as “what happens within you when something you care about is at stake.” What an empowering way to think about it. Defining stress in this way leads directly to using stress as a motivator rather than seeing it as an obstacle. She suggests, when you’re feeling stressed, to ask yourself what is the meaning involved in your experience, and what is it that matters to you in this situation. This adds a whole new dimension to stressful experience. She suggests reminding yourself of your values every day with a practice of taking a minute or so every morning before getting out of bed to identify the values that are most important to you that apply to whatever challenges you are currently facing. Connecting with what is important to you can help you transform stress into the energizing challenge response.

Another pillar of “getting good at stress” is working with its relational potential. McGonigal urges people to develop a mindset of connecting with others when under stress. Using stress as a catalyst for connecting with others can create physical and emotional resilience. Some practices for turning your stress into the tend-and-befriend response include

  • consciously choosing to not feel alone

  • asking for help

  • believing you have something of value to offer to others who are struggling with similar challenges

When asked at the end of a podcast interview (“Optimize,” 11/7/15) what her one piece of wisdom would be for actualizing one’s full human potential, McGonigal’s response was about connecting with others: pay more attention to how others are struggling or suffering, see our common humanity in suffering, and connect with others with compassion.

I feel I haven’t done this subject justice in this brief overview. It really deserves a more thorough look. If this interests you at all, I urge you to view McGonigal’s TED talk and/or read her book.