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Questions for Kelly McGonigal

Interview by Jennifer Anikst

A Stanford psychologist describes the ‘upside’ of stress.

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It is widely believed that stress makes us sick. But as a result of your research, you’ve changed your mind about it. Please explain.

The effects of stress are extremely diverse and complex. While they include increasing our risk of illness, they also include positive things, like better brain functioning and increased resilience. The time has come to change the notion that stress is uniformly negative, and that the appropriate response is to attempt to construct a stress-free life.

These days, we use the word ‘stress’ to describe anything that is uncomfortable or difficult; but the fact is, these same circumstances can ultimately provide learning, pleasure and meaning. We have transferred the scientific findings about one aspect of stress — that it can increase our risk of illness — to become its main definition. As a result, we often say things like, ‘I had a terrible day at work; my job is killing me’; or, ‘I’m always worried about my kids; being a parent is destroying my health’. It’s time to change the cultural conversation so that we recognize how profoundly unhelpful it is to view stress as inherently toxic.

Avoiding stress seems like a rational strategy, but you have found that it almost always backfires. What should we do instead?

The research shows that people who set out to avoid stress are actually more likely to become depressed and exhausted. What happens is, all of that avoidance behaviour changes the way that they relate to the world—not just to individual moments of stress, but to the most important challenges that life hands them. We can’t avoid the kind of stress we most wish to prevent — the serious traumas, losses or crises in life; but the kind of stress we can choose to avoid is actually the kind that is most likely to lead to beneficial effects. For example, the stress of pursuing a difficult goal that you aren’t certain you’ll succeed at, or engaging in a complicated relationship with a family member or co-worker. By avoiding these forms of stress, we end up avoiding circumstances and relationships that can strengthen us. We also reinforce the inner narrative about our own inadequacy.

Every time you choose avoidance over engagement, you are choosing a story about yourself that says, ‘I can’t handle this’ — and that has a powerful effect on every aspect of your well-being. As a result, when you face the serious stress you can’t avoid, you feel even more paralyzed, isolated, and overwhelmed. One of my favourite strategies for addressing this is the ‘values affirmation exercise’. This entails identifying what matters most to you — whether it’s a role or relationship; an orientation to life like religious faith, maintaining a sense of humour, or being able to find meaning; or a particular virtue or skill that you want to strengthen, like compassion, honesty, or courage — and using these things as resources whenever you feel the tendency to shut down. It’s about embracing an opportunity to think, ‘This stressful moment could actually be an exercise for expressing or prioritizing what matters most to me’.

Often, when we avoid stress, it’s because we can’t solve some issue immediately and we’re afraid of how difficult it’s going to be. For example, ‘I can’t just immediately quit smoking, so clearly, it’s going to be very stressful when I try to quit’; or, ‘I can’t immediately heal this relationship, because there’s going to be so much anger to deal with’ — both of which result in, ‘I’m not going to do it; I give up’. But if, instead, you think about taking an action that is consistent with your core values, you empower yourself to use the stress as an opportunity to deepen your commitment to these values. Research shows that this approach helps people persevere in very difficult circumstances.

You have found that if we choose to view our stress response as helpful, we can begin to create a ‘biology of courage’. Please describe how this works.

I coined this term as a coping mechanism for myself, because my instinctive biology was frequently one of fear. Basically, there are two types of responses to stress: a ‘challenge response’ and a ‘threat response’, and either can occur whenever you are in a situation that presents the risk of dire consequences. What fascinated me is that the same situation can trigger either response, based on whether the person has either a basic sense of self-trust or self-doubt.

A challenge response is what happens in your brain and body when your stance is, ‘I can handle this! I possess the resources to face it’; and a threat response is what happens when you lack that self-trust, and your initial sense is, ‘I can’t handle this; it’s too much’. Based on that initial impression, a cascade of physiological changes is set off to prepare you to deal with the type of situation that your brain and body now expect — depending on whether you feel you can handle the situation or not.

When you are in challenger mode, your brain becomes very focused on the task at hand and releases neurotransmitters, like dopamine, that motivate you and help you approach your goal. Your cardiovascular system becomes engaged; your heart beats faster to help give you energy, and you have an increase in adrenaline. However, you don’t have the type of physiological changes associated with the unhealthy aspects of stress. Those belong to the threat response, where instead of your brain and body giving you resources to take action, you instead focus your attention on detecting threat — which often leads to an avoidance state, where you can become paralyzed by stress. Basically, your brain kicks your fear and inhibition systems into high gear: your blood pressure soars, and you experience inflammation throughout the body, in preparation for what your brain thinks might be a real safety risk (even if only your ego is being threatened).

The research shows that just thinking about what you would like to happen in a particular situation, or remembering the resources you possess to handle it, can help you switch from a threat to a challenge response. That could mean thinking about a loved one or mentor who supports you; or focusing on the best possible long-term outcome of being willing to show up and face this challenge. Making that mental switch creates a completely different experience of the stressful situation, a different physical stress response, and, in the long term, creates an inner narrative of resilience and competence.

What are some of the long-term benefits of finding an upside to stress and adversity?

There was a recent study of people who act as caregivers for loved ones with dementia, and it found that when they were asked to spend a few minutes each day reflecting on the upside of that very difficult situation, it strengthened the relationship and increased their care-giving satisfaction, while decreasing the corresponding fatigue, burden and depression. That study is a great model for the benefits of choosing to see the upside of your stress response, or a stressful situation — even when the situation itself is not something you would choose. When you embrace your racing heart and think that your stress response might actually help you, or when you take a long-term perspective and think about what is causing the stress in your life, it gives you the energy and the strength you need to handle life’s challenges.

The profound ‘mindset reset’ that I’m encouraging involves embracing stress because you understand that there is no way to live a stress-free life, and that the presence of stress in our lives is important to being human. We need stress in order to experience the things we want most in life — whether it’s health, happiness, love or growth. I am convinced that when you choose to see the upside of stress, you increase your resilience, add meaning to your life and make more personal connections.

You have talked about ‘transforming isolation into common humanity’. Please explain this concept.

One thing that struck me in my research was the degree to which people feel alone in their suffering. They often feel that the people in their lives don’t understand their experience with grief and loss — that they don’t truly understand what it feels like to battle a health condition or go through a divorce. Of course, there are things in modern society that amplify this effect — like social media’s pressure to conceal our struggles and paint a picture of our lives as an ongoing array of wonderful moments.

The research shows very clearly that when people feel alone in their stress, it is more likely that they will experience depression and negative health consequences. Feeling like you are the only one suffering is often much more toxic than the actual experience itself. One of the most helpful strategies for changing your relationship with stress is to turn your attention to the stress and suffering of others. When you become sincerely interested in how other people are struggling, they will open up to you.

One exercise that we found particularly powerful in our compassion work involves looking at a stranger and saying, ‘I don’t know this person, but I know at some fundamental level that, just like me, she wants to be healthy and happy’. You can do this with any form of stress or suffering: ‘Just like me, this person wants to be appreciated and sometimes feels neglected or underappreciated’; ‘Just like me, this person wants to be able to contribute and also knows what it’s like to be frustrated and experience setbacks’. These are all universal human experiences, and they lead to a place of common humanity that allows your own experience of stress to be a catalyst for feeling more connected to others — rather than feeling isolated from them.

For example, Mark Zuckerberg recently disclosed that he and his wife were expecting a baby, after going through several miscarriages. Though I doubt he read my book, when I saw his Facebook post, I thought: This is exactly what I was hoping someone would do if they’d read my book. People project that someone like Zuckerberg has no worries in life, but with this act of courage, he made people feel less alone in their own struggles — and gave them permission to share, in an authentic way, in his joy. When stress becomes more transparent in everyone’s lives, we also get to experience the contagious joy that comes when things go well.

You have stopped setting New Year’s resolutions, and instead, you now set ‘stress goals’. Please elaborate.

Stress goals involve reflecting deeply about what you want in your life: what do you want to contribute to your community? How do you want to grow as a human being? If people are interested in setting a stress goal, it helps to start by asking, How do I want to grow? What do I want in my life that I don’t currently have? Then, ask yourself, What actions are required to address that?

For instance, if you want to develop your self-confidence, what is a situation in which you currently feel a lack of confidence? If you want to increase your well-being, what is a behaviour that might be difficult to change, but would inarguably make you healthier?

By embracing this kind of ‘growth mindset’, you are looking for opportunities in life that will challenge you, and accepting that without stress, you can’t continue to grow. The bottom line is, we actually need stress in order to develop.

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, where she teaches at the Graduate School of Business, the School of Medicine’s Health Improvement Program and the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. A leading expert in the new field of ‘Science-help’, her most recent book is, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good At It (Avery, 2015).

This article originally appeared in The Health Issue (Winter 2016).

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