Contributing Writer for Wake Up World
Believe it or not, the all too familiar feeling of sweaty palms, racing heart and clenched stomach can actually be good for you.
Each of us has been there, that downward spiral of stress. Juggling the demands of career, family and a fast-paced lifestyle, it’s no wonder tension levels are reaching epic proportions as we go about our day. To make matters worse, the media promotes the idea that stress is downright deadly. Just this fact alone is enough to send us into a tailspin of anxiety and worry. But one renegade psychologist is putting our assumptions about stress to the test — with surprising results.
An Unexpected “Aha” Moment
Kelly McGonigal is well-versed in the topic of stress. As an author, Stanford psychologist and pioneer in morphing academic science into practical, everyday use, she has long championed the notion that chronic stress is a silent killer and that we should minimize it at all costs.
But then she came across a study in Health Psychology.
McGonigal tells the Washington Post:
“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.”
She began to dig deeper and found other researchers were coming to the same conclusion: it’s the perception that stress is harmful to health which causes disease, not the stress itself.
For McGonigal, this understanding was a game changer.
A New Approach
Instead of teaching her students “stress is bad, reduce it or die,” McGonigal began introducing research that illustrates the beneficial aspects of stress, like how high pressure situations can improve performance. She emphasized the concept of using stress and anxiety to propel one towards greater success and mastery.
McGonigal also brought attention to the science which has shown repeatedly that the more you attempt to avoid and fight against suffering, the worse it becomes. In contrast, if you accept unpleasantness with awareness — and move forward by taking action — you actually strengthen overall well-being.
Making the Shift
So how do we embrace stress to reap the positive benefits? McGonigal offers several tips in “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at it” for creating a healthy relationship with tension.
It’s helpful to view stress as an indicator of meaning, not that you’re unfit to deal with life challenges. Trust in yourself to have the ability to change stress into something positive, like compassion, meaning or hope. Surveys have shown that individuals who are the most stressed and worried, are also more likely to report they lead meaningful lives.
“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?’”
She also recommends adopting a ‘Bigger than Self’ attitude. We can take a time out and regard the stressful situation we’re experiencing as really quite common, rather than unique only onto ourselves. We can see it as part of the human condition. When we alter our perception and take a broad view that others are struggling as well, we are more able to feel compassion and reach out to those in need. Instead of becoming paralyzed by fear when under pressure, we experience hope.
McGonagal reminds us that stress can truly “transform fear into courage, isolation into connection, and suffering into meaning.”
How to Make Stress Your Friend
- “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at it” Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., Penguin Random House, New York, 2015
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