The Upside of Stress – Kelly McGonigal
According to conventional wisdom, stress is a killer – a Pandora’s box of threats to the mind and body. Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal offers a rare contrarian look at stress based on new research that changed her mind about its impact.
The Tend-and-Befriend Response
This response stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes emotional connections with others. It suppresses the flight instinct, giving you the courage to face the source of your stress. You become more likely to seek others’ support and to offer your support to them. Oxytocin is heart-friendly, helping the organ regenerate cells and repair “microdamage.”
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Stress As A Resource
The latest science indicates that, far from being a toxic goad, stress can become a valuable resource in difficult moments. The stress response enhances performance. Under stress, businesspeople hold more successful negotiations, students do better on tests, athletes become more competitive, surgeons improve their dexterity and pilots handle simulated emergencies more effectively.
The Focusing Mechanism Of Stress
Imagine you are about to give a speech. If you’re like most people, you experience the physical symptoms of nervousness: dry mouth, sweaty palms, and an accelerated heartbeat.
Conventional wisdom says you won’t perform well unless you find a way to calm down and tame that anxiety. But if you dampen that stress, you’re cutting yourself off from a powerful ally.
The symptoms you interpret as anxiety are actually the result of a challenge response. You feel more focused. Your brain processes information faster. The world even looks brighter because your pupils have dilated.
Defining A Stressful Situation
Stress arises only in situations that involve something that is important to you. By pursuing your values, you inevitably encounter stress. Don’t interpret stress as a sign that something is wrong. You wouldn’t expect to reach a big goal, like climbing Mt. Everest, without encountering stress. You accept that hardships are part of the challenge, and you face them because you value the goal. You won’t feel like a failure because you’re exhausted from the cold or anxious about scaling yet another ice mass. You’ll see stress as a sign of failure only when you avoid it, not when you use it.
Don’t Dodge Stress
Research suggests that trying to avoid stress may be more harmful to your health and emotional well-being than stress itself. In a Japanese study, students who tried to dodge stress experienced a diminished sense of community.
In Zurich, those students who tried hardest to avoid pressure reported a loss of focus, vitality, and discipline. A US Department of Veterans Affairs study tracked more than 1,000 adults for a decade.
Those who said they tried to avoid stress reported more incidents of depression, increased discord at home or on the job, and more negative outcomes, such as divorce.
Let There Be Discomfort
Those who try to avoid stress concentrate on dulling the discomfort rather than dealing with its source. They might use unhealthy means of escape, like alcohol. They may also isolate themselves from relationships or withdraw from their careers to avoid the pressure. Such avoidant behavior increases stress and robs people of resources they could use to handle the stress instead.
The best way to deal with stress is to embrace it and deploy it to support your efforts to achieve your goals. To do so, you must change your mindset about stress. A mind-set is a “core belief,” a part of your fundamental understanding of how the world works. As in the placebo effect, in which a sugar pill produces whatever results the patient expects from actual medication, a mental state can spark physiological or neurological responses.
Mindset Intervention: Learn The New Point of View
Present the new mindset in a short lecture, video, or reading. For instance, psychologist Greg Walton conducted an intervention to help Ivy League freshmen feel that they belonged in the student community.
Walton had the students read comments from juniors and seniors about how they struggled with feeling like outsiders at first and how that feeling changed over time.
The next steps:
Do an exercise that encourages you to adopt this mindset.
Share the idea with others.
Remember Your Values
The stress of daily hassles, such as long lines at the supermarket, can have the most negative impact because these stressors feel random and meaningless. Instead of appearing as challenges, they feel more like “intrusions”—stumbling blocks that prevent life from running smoothly.
When you write about your values, you see problems as more manageable and are more likely to face challenges than avoid them. Select a personal value and write a short essay about it. Explain why you find this value meaningful and describe its role in your daily life.
Manage Your Stress Response
To manage stress, learn to trigger an appropriate or beneficial stress response. For instance, if you have to give a speech, you may feel so nervous that you trigger the fight-or-flight response. But fleeing or throwing punches isn’t the most practical way to handle this stress. People tend to trigger fight-or-flight when they believe they lack the resources – the skills or fortitude – to handle a situation