Stress at 36,000 feet?
1: Reva and her husband, Lakshman, took Kelly McGonigal‘s New Science of Stress course together. After the last class, they flew to Australia to see one of their daughters, who was expecting a baby.
“Lakshman suffers from heart disease, and one of the symptoms is obstructive sleep apnea,” Reva explains in Kelly’s powerful book The Upside of Stress. “He needs to use a continuous airway pressure machine on flights to maintain adequate oxygen. The machine has to be plugged in, and it takes up a lot of space—something that makes flying a very stressful experience.
“On this flight, the power outlet was on the ceiling, and the connection kept coming loose. Because it was a night flight, the plane was dark, which made it hard to see,” Reva recalls. She had to climb on her seat to reconnect the cord. Trying to maneuver in the cramped row was painful, especially because Reva was recovering from knee replacement surgery. “She felt her whole body responding to stress,” Kelly writes.
2: But Reva and Lakshman remembered the stress response is more than just fight-or-flight.
First, they talked about the stress they were feeling. “Instead of stressing about the stress, they imagined their bodies releasing oxytocin to help them support each other and to protect Lakshman’s heart,” Kelly shares. “Knowing about the social side of the stress response, Reva befriended the woman in the seat next to her. Connecting with the row mate made the rest of the long journey much easier, as Reva no longer worried about disturbing her with her movements.
“Reva and Lakshman also made a conscious choice to shift their mental focus from trying to fix an uncontrollable situation to thinking about why the flight itself was important,” Kelly writes. “They talked about how this ordeal was part of something meaningful—going to see their daughter and soon-to-be-born grandchild. This helped them appreciate the journey, even with its discomfort.”
3: Kelly loves this story because it is a simple example of how remembering the many aspects of a stress response can help transform our experience of stress. In this case, focusing on social connection and meaning was the perfect strategy for enduring a long and uncomfortable flight.
“The stress response is more than a basic survival instinct,” Kelly writes. “It is built into how humans operate, how we relate to one another, and how we navigate our place in the world. When [we] understand this, the stress response is no longer something to be feared. It is something to be appreciated, harnessed, and even trusted.”
When we believe that stress is harmful, anything that feels a bit stressful feels like an intrusion on our life. The takeaway is to change our relationship to the everyday experiences we perceive as hassles. The same experiences that give rise to daily stress can also be sources of uplift or meaning—but we must choose to view them this way.
When we feel our body responding to stress, we can ask ourselves which part of the stress response we need most. Do we need to fight, escape, engage, connect, find meaning, or grow? Even if it feels like our stress response is pushing us in one direction, focusing on how we want to respond can shift our biology to support us.
Reflection: What are my beliefs and assumptions about stress? What interests me or surprises me about Kelly’s research?
Action: Talk with my spouse, colleague, or friend about this material.