How to transform our view of stress

1: What we’ve taught about stress is wrong, Kelly McGonigal argues in her terrific book The Upside of Stress.  Despite what we’ve been taught and told, the latest science shows stress by itself is not harmful.  However, believing stress is harmful to our health is toxic. 

So, how do we transform our view of stress?  Are there actions we can take when we feel overwhelmed to direct our stress?

The short answer?  Yes.

Step one is to acknowledge stress when we experience it.  Simply allow ourselves to notice the stress, including how it affects our body. 

Step two is to welcome the stress by recognizing that it’s a response to something we care about.  Ask: what is at stake here?  Why does it matter?  Are we able to connect to the positive motivation behind the stress? 

Step three is to make use of the energy that stress gives us.  Instead of wasting energy trying to manage our stress, we ask: What can we do right now that reflects our goals and values? 

2: In research studies, people who took a two-hour program where they learned the three step stress mindset process above and who were encouraged to practice at least once a day, showed significant improvement.

Before the training, participants “had generally endorsed a stress-is-harmful mindset, but now they were more likely to recognize its upside.  They were also better at dealing with stress… [reporting] less anxiety and depression and better physical health.  At work, they felt more focused, creative, and engaged,” writes Kelly.

Perhaps most encouraging?

Those whose mindset changed the most—from most negative to more positive—showed the biggest improvements.  

And, at a final follow-up six weeks afterwards, these benefits were maintained. 

“Importantly,” Kelly notes, “none of these benefits could be explained by a reduction on the amount of stress the employees reported.  The intervention did not reduce stress, it transformed stress.”

3: As a lecturer at Stanford, Kelly encourages her students to put these theories about the positive nature of stress into action.  

“I ask the students to report back on the ideas we discussed the previous week. Were they able to use any of the strategies?  Did rethinking stress help them handle a difficult situation?  I also ask them to pay special attention to any opportunities to share what they are learning with others.  Their last assignment is to report back on what they found most helpful and how they shared that idea or practice with someone they care about.”

The results have been overwhelmingly positive.

“One student had a son on active duty, assigned to a special-ops wing of the U.S. Air Force,” Kelly shares.  “There are times the family has no idea where he is. The student found the course helpful in dealing with the stress of separation and the uncertainty of not knowing. 

“Another student had recently left a bad marriage and was starting over on her own. The new stress mindset reinforced her belief that she had the ability to move on, and gave her a more positive way to think about her past experience. 

“Another student had recently been demoted at work, and had fallen into a pattern of doing less than his best and isolating himself from his coworkers.  He had been telling himself that disengaging at work was helpful because it allowed him to avoid the stress he felt about being demoted. The class helped him realize how self-defeating that was, and he was able to reengage in a more productive way on the job.”

Kelly notes: “The new mindset didn’t change the situations themselves, but it did change the students’ relationships to them.” 

More tomorrow.

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Reflection: Why does Kelly encourage her students to share what they are learning about stress with others?

Action:  Experiment with the three-step stress mindset practice above.  Today.

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