As we enter the holidays, and the news about shootings, racism, terrorism, and the growing fascism of our extremist politicians increases, I cannot help but be affected by stress. We have been taught to do anything we can to relieve stress, but even thinking positive thoughts and exercising a lot still can leave me with an uncomfortable level of anxiety.
There might be a different solution. Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal has turned the idea that stress is bad for us on its head. In her new book, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How To Get Good At It*, she proposes that the way to handle stress is to embrace it and use it, not deny it, avoid it, or try to make it go away. Her inspirational and potentially life changing work opened my eyes to new ways of thinking, and new ideas for teaching, about stress.
For years, McGonigal had taught stress reduction courses in a traditional manner. She based her work on the beliefs that stress is bad, it can ruin your health, and you must do everything that you can to eliminate it from your life. What she has discovered, though, is that stress can be extremely useful, both psychologically and physiologically, if we change our minds about it.**
McGonigal shows us something very simple: if you think that stress is harmful, it actually is. If you think that stress is useful, it is. For the brain chemistry nerds, here’s how: when we choose to see our stress as helpful, DHEA (which combats anxiety, depression and heart disease) increases, and cortisol (which affects immune system function) decreases. The reverse happens when we view stress as something to be avoided — cortisol increases and DHEA decreases.
We all have heard about fight or flight as the two responses to stress. McGonigal’s research gives us two more stress responses. The challenge response gets your blood vessels to open and your heart to beat more strongly. You get more oxygen in your brain and feel more energy in your body. If you are an athlete or performer, you’ve experienced this response. It gives you inspiration to do your very best under challenging circumstances.
The tend/befriend response makes us go out of our way to help others during stressful times. We’ve seen this in our country’s worst attacks, from the doctors who rushed into harm’s way to help the injured at the Boston Marathon bombing, to the first responders during 9/11. A powerful cocktail of chemicals gets released in the brain: oxytocin, which prompts the need to connect, dopamine, which inhibits fear, and serotonin, which helps with intuition.
So how do we shift to these other forms of stress response? McGonigal’s advice is clear. First, acknowledge your stress. Second, welcome it, because it means you care deeply about something. Third, use the energy provided by your stress to pursue your goal.
She offers many examples of how connecting to what we value changes our response. One that stood out for me: a group of physicians were experiencing serious burnout due to the stress of caring for their patients’ needs. When they connected to the meaning of the work they were doing, their energy was renewed. They learned to see their stress as a resource.
Our response also changes when we feel part of a community with a larger mission. A study of employees going through difficult corporate transitions found that those who helped their colleagues through the tough times had fewer health issues than those focused on their own survival. (Not coincidentally, companies connected to the greater social good showed higher revenues and growth.)
The last segment of the book covers somewhat controversial territory. McGonigal delicately addresses resistance to new research about post-traumatic stress. However, people are not “doomed to be damaged”, as she phrases it. If we see the good and bad of life events, we gain resilience. And if we grow from those experiences, we will have better physical health, protect ourselves against depression, and strengthen our immune functions.
Midway through the book, McGonigal offers ways to prepare ourselves to welcome stress. Bring your deepest values into your daily activities, she says. As I read this, I thought of the Buddhist monk sweeping the temple with the same attention that he gives his prayers. Then, do one small action every day to help someone else. My husband calls his daily practice “compliment a stranger”.
I am thinking about how these two requests reflect what our holidays stand for, beyond our relationship to stress. Both should be a part of our traditions, not only in the coming weeks, but throughout the years ahead. Our lives will be better for it.
*McGonigal, Kelly, THE UPSIDE OF STRESS: WHY STRESS IS GOOD FOR YOU, AND HOW TO GET GOOD AT IT (New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2015).
**Please see my November 2014 post, “Change Your Language — Change Your Life”, for more about mindsets.