The Upside of Stress
June 01, 2015
In The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal teaches us that stress can be a force for good in our lives, if only we change the way we think about it.
She has changed her mind, and in her new book, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, she aims to change yours. She is still a stress crusader, but she's switched sides, and now teaches that stress "is helpful and should be accepted, utilized, and embraced."
But why the 180 on the issue? And how can stress possibly be good for you?
She begins by citing the 1998 study that led to her conversion on the issue, a study that showed that stress only negatively affects your health if you believe it does, that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. It sounds crazy, I know. But the study asked thirty thousand participants two questions: how much stress they had experienced in the last year, and if they believe that stress is harmful to one's health. Scouring the public records eight years later, they found:
High levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. But—and this is what got my attention—that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming the health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.
So stress is killing people. It is indeed the epidemic she thought it to be, with a seemingly slight, but severe difference: it is not the stress itself that is harmful. It is the belief that stress is harming your health that actually does. This challenged her beliefs, and the very foundation of what she was teaching and doing for a living. But, admitting she "was tempted to pretend she never saw that study," she is also a scholar, and realized...
I'd always told my psychology students at Stanford University that the most exciting kind of scientific study is one that challenges how you think about yourself and the world.
And this did just that for her. So she began to see this as opportunity to rethink what she believed and taught, and her own relationship to stress.
She began to realize that her crusade to tell people "Stress will kill you!" was likely having unintended, profoundly negative consequences—that perhaps convincing people that their stress would kill them was making it more likely it would. She relates it to how the most severe cigarette warnings on cigarette packs often have a reverse effect, and how shaming people for unhealthy behaviors like overeating consistently backfires.
Fear, stigma, self-criticism, shame—all of these are believed, by many health professionals, to be powerfully motivating messages that help people improve their well-being. And yet, when put to the scientific test, these messages push people toward the very behaviors the health professionals hope to change. Over the years, I've seen the same dynamic play out: Well-intentioned doctors and psychologists convey a message they think will help; instead, the recipients end up overwhelmed, depressed, and driven to self-destructive coping behaviors.
So, McGonigal dives into "the new science of stress" (a course she teaches at Stanford Continuing Studies that is the premise of the book carries that very name) to explain why this thinking is backward. She does so not only to convince the reader that stress can, in fact, be good for you if viewed in a more healthy light, but because knowing the science behind the advice and strategies she offers later in the book "helps them stick." So Part 1 of the book is all about how to "Rethink Stress," including coming to terms with the fact that "A Meaningful Life Is a Stressful Life," while Part 2 of the book gets into the nitty gritty of how to "Transform Stress" and will teach you "How Anxiety Helps You Rise to the Challenge," " How Caring Creates Resilience," and "How Adversity Makes You Stronger."
For those of us that currently try "to cope" with our stress as well as we can, and feel bad when we are inevitably "stressed out," simply changing the way we think about it could be a tectonic shift in life, one the even prolongs it. Instead of coping with stress, and seeing it as the enemy, we can embrace it and channel it into a positive direction. After all, as she writes "No matter the audience, nobody ever cam up afterward to say, "Thank you so much for telling me how toxic my stressful life is. I know I can get rid of the stress, but I'd just never thought to do it before!" We've all thought about it; we just have been doing so in the wrong way, one that plagues us with guilt and negativity, which are the real toxins.
The first step to a (literally) more healthy way to think about and experience the stress in our lives is getting a hold of a copy of The Upside of Stress.
We have 20 copies available.