By changing the way you think, you can deal with stress more effectively and use it to serve your goals.
A friend complains about being stressed: there’s a deadline at work, one of the kids is sick, the car broke down and she had a nasty argument with a neighbour. Stressful indeed. So the usual goal is to reduce stress, to avoid it. This seems like common sense.
However, when it comes to physical activity, the idea of reducing stress has long been discredited. Exercise is good for you, as long as it’s not too much. For athletes, training is designed to provide the amount of stress on muscles to build them up without causing injury.
Lack of physical stress is disastrous for the body. Lying in bed for day after day is a health hazard, with muscle wastage and other adverse consequences.
If the body needs optimal stress for best performance, what about the mind? Are there actually advantages to stress? The answer to these questions, according to Kelly McGonigal, is an emphatic yes, as indicated by the title of her book The upside of stress: why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it).
McGonigal spent many years recommending the usual advice to reduce stress. Then she was stimulated to rethink her position and started looking into research on the benefits of stress.
McGonigal writes in an engaging fashion. She draws on her personal experience and tells about research findings in an accessible way, often providing stories about the researchers or about people who have been changed by adopting a different approach to stress.
Here’s the most amazing finding. If you think that stress is good for you, it will actually become better for you.
McGonigal cites research by Alia Crum. In one of Crum’s studies, one group of hotel housekeepers was told that the physical work they did on the job was a form of exercise and good for them; the other group was told only that physical exercise was good for health. Then after a period of four weeks, each group’s physiological parameters were measured. The group that thought of work as exercise did better, including losing weight and body fat and reducing blood pressure. Simply thinking about their work differently changed its effect on their bodies.
Another typical experiment goes like this. Two groups of subjects are prepared for a stressful experience, for example giving a talk in front of a large audience. One group is given the usual advice that stress is not good for you and that they should to try to relax. The other group is told that stress is a useful tool. The group thinking positively about stress performs better according to independent judges.
Then there are physiological tests. One group, put into a stressful situation, is told in advance that they’ll feel nervous and should try to relax. The other group is told they’ll feel excited. The group that interprets stress as excitement actually has lower levels of biomarkers for harmful products.
The implication is that fearing and avoiding stress causes harm, whereas accepting and embracing stress can reduce its negative impacts and enable better performance.
These results reflect an important process: the influence of thinking on behaviour, in particular the role of a mindset, which is a framework for understanding the world, or oneself. Carol Dweck in her book Mindset described two ways of thinking about intelligence and performance. One is the fixed mindset, in which an individual sees performance as reflecting an innate capacity. The other is the growth mindset, in which performance is seen as reflecting effort. The growth mindset is far better for long-term improvement. People with a fixed mindset avoid challenges where they might fail, because failure might shake their belief about themselves, whereas people with a growth mindset see failure as indicating they need to work harder.
Mindsets about stress are similarly important. The key thing is that they affect behaviour in systematic ways. Believing stress is bad leads to efforts at distraction, getting rid of feelings (rather than addressing their source), drug use and withdrawal. In contrast, when people believe stress is beneficial, they accept the existence of stressful events, strategise, seek information and advice, address the source of stress and make the best of the situation.
McGonigal traces negative attitudes to stress to Hans Selye’s classic studies of the effects of stress on rats. They were highly traumatised, and these findings were interpreted by doctors and the public as indicating that stress should be avoided. This was not Selye’s intention, because there were important differences between the experiences of his rats and those of most people. Selye’s rats were exposed to electric shocks in a situation in which the shocks were unpredictable, unavoidable and meaningless. In contrast, the stresses that most people experience in their daily lives are fairly predictable, sometimes avoidable and often quite meaningful.
“Even in circumstances of great suffering, human beings have a natural capacity to find hope, exert choice, and make meaning. This is why in our own lives, the most common effects of stress include strength, growth, and resilience.” (p. 45)
One of the ways to benefit from stress is to recognise that it provides the resources to deal with situations. Stress commonly causes your heart rate to increase, your body to sweat and your attention to become focused. The trick is to realise that these responses are helpful for dealing with challenges: your attention is focused on the issue at hand, your senses are heightened, your energy is mobilised. So rather than trying to dampen the stress response by avoidance, it can be used to take action.
A second dimension of the stress response relates to interactions with others. To benefit from stress, the key is to get beyond the fight-or-flight options and instead adopt a “tend and befriend” response. This means to interact with others, to help others, to be sensitive to others’ emotions, and to defend them.
There is a third dimension to the stress response: it can help you learn and grow. The way your body responds to stress can help integrate experiences.
The first half of McGonigal’s book is about understanding stress, covering these three dimensions. The second half is about transforming stress, addressing the same three dimensions, describing ways to learn how to change stress from a negative to a positive. This involves exercises to use anxiety (a stress response) for achieving goals, to respond to stress by caring for others and thus build resilience, and to become stronger as a result of stress.
This last dimension can seem unfair. If you’re subject to traumatic experiences, why should the onus be on you to use this as a way of becoming stronger? McGonigal repeatedly emphasises that trauma is bad news: it has many downsides and should be avoided. But trauma is an inevitable part of most people’s lives, and it is worth knowing that it is possible to gain something from it. This is a matter of recognising the hardship involved but also trying to gain something from the experience.
Making attacks backfire
Over the past twenty years, I’ve heard from hundreds of individuals who are concerned about being sued for defamation. Some are worried that something they have said would open them to legal action. Others have received letters from lawyers demanding an apology and a payment for damages. A few have received a writ and are facing expensive court proceedings.
Many of them are frightened, even terrified. They are afraid they might be sued and end up losing their house. To say they are stressed is to put it mildly. They often don’t know what to do and, while looking for information, have stumbled across my website.
McGonigal’s approach to stress offers a different way of thinking about legal threats. Rather than fearing them, they sometimes can actually be welcomed because of the opportunity to try to make them counterproductive for the perpetrators. Truda Gray and I have written about how to use publicity and other means to make defamation threats and actions backfire.
In some cases, there is no easy option, but nonetheless there are options and they need to be carefully considered. The stress of being attacked can be used as a resource to generate courage, seek support and think strategically. Rather than cowering in fear, a better attitude is to think “Come and get me (and beware – you may regret it).”
More on mindsets
In some ways, McGonigal’s biggest challenge is people’s deep-seated beliefs that stress is bad. She is fighting an uphill battle, and experimental findings and stories will only go so far. What is really required is a change of mindset, to rethink stress and how to respond to it.
McGonigal reports quite a few studies of “mindset interventions.” These are typically group sessions lasting 30 minutes to a few hours designed to change the way people think about themselves and the world. Done well, a mindset intervention can lead to lasting changes in behaviour, for example improved academic performance.
This can be hard to believe. Teachers spend hundreds of hours with students trying to help them learn, and can react with scepticism to someone who says a short session can make a lasting difference. There’s another confounding factor: people whose mindsets are transformed don’t even remember the intervention. They think of things differently and do better because that is their new reality. No extra effort is needed.
If you want to change the way you react to stress, you can create your own personal mindset intervention. Get The Upside of Stress and read some of it. Then write down a brief account of how you could react to stress more positively. Then tell someone else about what you’ve read and how they could change their own reactions. That’s it. It’s not much, and can have lasting benefits.
Thanks to Dalilah Reuben-Shemia for useful comments.