The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Science shows that stress has an upside. Here’s how to make it work for you

Stress isn’t always bad – it can be a motivator if you view it the right way. (Photo by istock)

Kelly McGonigal, author, Stanford psychologist and pioneer in the new field of “science help” – translating academic science into practical use – challenged the conventional view that stress is bad with her viral 2013 TED Talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” In her new book, The Upside of Stress, McGonigal argues that stress can “transform fear into courage, isolation into connection, and suffering into meaning.” She explains.

Q: There are a host of studies showing how stress is bad for our health. Stress has been associated with high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, inflammation, cancer and newer studies are showing it can shrink the brain! Yet you argue there’s an upside to stress?

McGonigal: It’s not that the research that stress is harmful is all wrong. But it really needs to be put in context. That science is largely based on animal studies that are largely based on a model of torturing animals – depriving them of social contact, restraining them. They’re designed to create a defeat response. And when stress shrinks the brain, damages the heart, I argue it’s not from the stress itself, but from a toxic relationship to stress.

Q: A toxic relationship to stress?

McGonigal: When stress feels against your will and out of your control, if it’s completely devoid of meaning and if it isolates you from others, that’s what I mean by having a toxic relationship to stress. And if you have that kind of stress, then it really is associated with the consequences that we fear.

Yet there is as much or more research that shows stress doesn’t increase the risk of depression or other harmful health outcomes when you have a different relationship to it. It’s how you think about stress that determines how it affects you. And many times, how we think about stress is the only thing we can control.

[Related: How paying attention to the rest of your life can help you at work]

Q: What changed your mind about stress?

The first real trigger for me was a study published online in 2011 that showed that having a high level of stress only increased people’s risk of mortality when it was combined with belief that stress was bad for health. The same was not true among people who had high levels of stress, but didn’t believe it was bad.

That study confused me. It was a real existential crisis for me, because my mission as a health psychologist is to help people. I’d been indoctrinated that stress is the enemy, and we need to reduce or avoid stress. That was number one in all my training. That’s what you hear in the Zeitgeist. And the message underlying that is that if your life is stressful, you’re doing something wrong, or there’s something fundamentally wrong with your life. There’s no hope there. Then you’re more likely to isolate and withdraw, and practice avoidance coping, like drinking.

That sent me on a journey to find out if that was right. That’s when I found several other studies that show it’s how you think about stress that matters. For instance, the Whitehall study in the UK showed that stress increases cardiovascular disease only if you believe stress is harmful.

The other moment that convinced me – I began teaching in my science of stress class how embracing stress can help you handle stress. And the look on my students’ faces – I had never seen before. I realized I had been depressing my students with the message that stress is bad. Instead, I began introducing research that shows stress can be helpful in high pressure situations to enhance performance. And the more you take that mindset, the more stress and anxiety can propel you to greater success. Afterward, people THANKED me for the lecture.

But what made me commit to making this switch – despite the fact that I’ve gotten such push back – is not only that the science is good, but in my first book on chronic pain, my The Willpower Instinct book, and my scientific work on compassion, the underlying premise of all of those is, the more you try to avoid and resist the suffering, the worse it gets. The more you mindfully accept it, the anxiety, the suffering, the stress, and take action anyway, the more it improves your own well-being.

It takes shifting your stress mindset.

[Related: Are you living your best life? Do a ‘Joy Review," says author of Chicken Soup for the Soul]

Q: How?

McGonigal: Think of stress as a signal of meaning, not that you’re inadequate to the challenges in life. Trust your human capacity to transform stress into something good – compassion, hope, meaning. People who are more stressed out, who worry more, surveys show, are also more likely to say their lives are meaningful.

For instance, last night, I got this email. It made me really sad and disappointed. It took me a few moments, but then I realized, the disappointment and sadness were signs of how much I cared. And once you recognize that, it’s important to stay engaged, and to think about what action you can take that’s consistent with your goals and values.

That is the mindset shift. Instead of seeing stress as a sign that something’s wrong, and then choosing a response that’s more destructive – like thinking, ‘I’m not cut out to be a parent.’ Or ‘This job is too much for me.’ Think, ‘OK, I’m angry right now. I’m overwhelmed because something I care about is at stake. So what do I want to do about that?’ Maybe you feel like you’re in a bad place and you care about your health, so you decide to practice self care. Or you want to stand up for yourself. Or apologize to someone because the relationship matters.

Even the anxiety that comes with stress – research shows that if you choose to believe that that anxiety can help you, that it’s part of your body’s way of trying to give you energy – that can help you meet peak performance challenges.

Q: How can people start shifting their stress mindsets?

McGonigal: I tell people to spend a couple minutes writing or reflecting on why a stressful situation is connected to something meaningful. Would they rather not have it in their lives? If you’re caring for an aging parent, would you rather not have a relationship with your parent? Or is it that the loving relationship that you’ve had makes you want to take care of them rather than send them to a nursing home?

I also tell people to shift into what I call the ‘Bigger than Self’ perspective – to take a few minutes to see their stressful situation as common rather than unique, that what they’re experiencing is part of the human condition.

One way we experience stress is through contraction – we feel trapped in our bodies and our own emotions. We start ruminating on stories very tightly focused on us rather than what other people feel, and feel isolated, that we’re alone in this suffering.

But when we shift and think beyond ourselves, to who else in this situation is struggling, or what people I care about are experiencing, we can use our own struggles as a catalyst for helping others.

Research shows that anytime you shift your focus to paying attention to others in a compassionate place, it increases the brain’s reward system and propels you to take action. Rather than paralysis and fear people often feel around stress, it increases hope.

If you liked this story on Inspired Life, you may also enjoy:

How Charles Darwin used rest to be more productive – and how you can, too

Sign up for our Inspired Life Saturday newsletter here