September 9, 2015
For years, researchers Kelly McGonigal spread the message that stress was toxic. Unsurprisingly, people weren’t too happy to hear that message. The takeaway – that if you can’t reduce your stress, you’re doomed – isn’t the most uplifting.
But these days, McGonigal is spreading a different message, the one encapsulated in her TED talk “How to Make Stress Your Friend” and her book The Upside of Stress: stress can be good for us, particularly if we see the positives in it.
I was skeptical when I first watched her talk, because it seemed like an impossible change to make. How could I possibly see stress as beneficial? Stress is the killer, no? But it turns out we don’t have to conjure up a belief in stress’s benevolence out of thin air. The Upside of Stress cites research supporting the notion that stress is beneficial – in at least five ways:
1. Longer Life
The study that jolted McGonigal out of her stress-is-bad mantra followed 30,000 adults for eight years. It measured how much stress people were experiencing, and whether they thought stress was harmful. In the end, stress only increased the risk of death for people who thought it was bad. People with high stress who didn’t see it as harmful were actually less likely to die than people with low stress.
2. Better Performance
A stressful mind can be a high-performing one, across many different domains: students with lots of adrenaline get higher grades on their exams; soldiers swimming in cortisol are less likely to cave during a hostile interrogation; police officers whose hearts are beating faster are less likely to accidentally shoot a hostage during training.
The same is true of entrepreneurs: feeling stressed out one day makes you more likely to learn something that day, too. In one study, more than half of the executives surveyed said they do their best work while stressed.
Hard to believe? Biology actually backs up these findings. It turns out that “fight-or-flight” isn’t the only possible stress response; under pressure, we might also experience something called a “challenge response.” Instead of flooding our system, the stress hormones and chemicals pumping through the body boost our energy, make us more alert, and actually improve sight and hearing. We get more motivated and feel confident and powerful. This is the peak state of your typical athlete, surgeon, or musician.
3. More Social
Another possible stress response is called “tend-and-befriend.” You know how a lousy day or a harsh rejection makes you want to call a friend or get a hug? That’s the tend-and-befriend response in action.
I was shocked to hear this, but some stress actually releases oxytocin – that “love hormone” that makes us feel closer to others. Oh, and oxytocin helps the heart repair itself. Who said stress is a killer?
4. More Resilient
Well, you might say, minor stress is one thing. But surely significant trauma can’t be good for me?
Not so fast.
In a 2014 review of studies on trauma, researchers found that people who experience the most stress after a trauma – think losing a job, a loved one, or a limb – also experience the most growth. They are the ones who develop closer relationships and more religious faith. They are the ones who find inner strength and forge a new path for themselves. They are the ones who emerge with a reverent appreciation for life.
Stress can drive us to realign our priorities, and it can teach us that whatever life throws at us, we can handle it. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
5. More Meaningful Life
In a 2013 study, all the versions of stress measured – number of past stressful events, current stress, worrying about the future, and thinking about past struggles – were all associated with having a more meaningful life.
That makes sense for people who went through a trauma – the process of reprioritization makes us see what’s really important. But it also makes sense for people with everyday stressors. After all, McGonigal points out, things stress us out because they matter. If we didn’t care about something – work, family, health – it wouldn’t have that power.
The traditional advice following the traditional message about stress is to get rid of it any way that’s humanly possible: do yoga, meditate, cut down your work hours. But McGonigal’s advice is different: change your stress mindset. Start to see stress as positive, and it will become so. And that’s a topic for another article.
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