|Photo courtesy Ryan McGuire|
I can’t say I’ve ever been a big fan of stress. That is, until I read The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good At It, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. She completely changed the way I look at stress—and at the challenges in my life.
I first began to consider that stress wasn’t the demon it’s been made out to be when I listened to McGonigal’s TED talk on the subject (thanks to Laure Ferlita for sending me the link). At the time, my main takeaway from the talk was this quote: “Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort.” I’d been avoiding discomfort as much as I can, because I struggle with feelings of inadequacy and I don’t feel I handle the stressful aspects of life well. (To put it in McGonigal’s terms, I’m not “good at stress.”) However, McGonigal makes clear that there are consequences to avoiding the discomfort of stress, including missed opportunities and a limited future. She also notes that avoiding anxiety-producing situations has the opposite effect to making you feel safe, because it reinforces fears and increases your worries about future anxiety. Huh.
I’d sum up the book this way: Whether or not stress is harmful depends on your mindset. Change the way you perceive stress and you will change how it affects you. As McGonigal writes, “The same experiences that give rise to daily stress can also be sources of uplift or meaning—but we must choose to see them that way.” How do we do this? McGonigal offers several tools and exercises, or mindset interventions, to help us to make that shift. There’s so much good material in the book that I recommend you read it. In the meantime, here are some of the points I found most interesting:
One of the most effective ways to change how you think about stress is to determine and write about your personal values. This practice, according to McGonigal, makes people feel more in control, strong, loving, and connected. Even better, the benefits of this practice can be long lasting, even if you only do it once. Why is this so powerful? McGonigal reports that analysis of studies concluded, “When people are connected to their values, they are more likely to believe that they can improve their situation through effort and the support of others. That makes them more likely to take positive action and less likely to use avoidant coping strategies like procrastination and denial.”
Changing how you respond to the physical symptoms of anxiety and stress can help you see stressful events as challenges rather than threats. Do you think anxiety drains you, or can you see how it can be a source of energy? The only difference between the rush you get when doing something fun/scary versus something scary/scary is how you perceive the event. When you feel physical and mental signs of anxiety and stress, tell yourself you’re excited. I used this concept recently when the horse I was riding spooked. All that adrenalin was helping me stay alert and focused! (Not to mention in the saddle instead of on the ground.) As McGonigal says, turn your “uh-oh” to “oh, yeah!”
Failure and setbacks are NOT to be avoided. McGonigal writes, “[People] view [failure] as something to avoid at all costs because it will reveal that they aren’t smart or talented enough. This mindset can creep in whenever we are at a growth edge, pursuing any goal or change that is beyond our current abilities. Too often, we perceive setbacks as signals to stop—we think they mean something is wrong with us or with our goals…”
A stress-free life is not necessarily a happier life. Interestingly, people who have a life without adversity are less happy and healthy than those who have experienced “an average number of traumatic events,” and they’re significantly less satisfied with their lives, according to McGonigal.
Yes, it is true that stress can be harmful under certain circumstances, notably when you feel inadequate to it, it isolates you from others, and it feels meaningless and against your will. While there may be times when these conditions are beyond your control, the strategies mapped out in The Upside of Stress can help you grow from stress, and learn to transform it into something positive.
Some books have made a huge difference in my life—The Upside of Stress is one of them. It left me feeling more optimistic about my ability to thrive under stressful conditions rather than curl into a ball and hide. Though I haven’t gone so far as to wish for stressful experiences, after reading The Upside of Stress, I feel better prepared to face them when they inevitably show up.
What stressful experiences have you found most meaningful?