How recovering from stress spurs learning and growth 

1: Many of us view our sweaty palms, our need for moral support, or our rumination after a stressful experience as excessive “stress symptoms.”  Perhaps we see these signs and believe we aren’t handling stress well.   And, we think stress is something we need to recover from. 

As with so many aspects of stress, we are wrong, Kelly McGonigal writes in her powerful book The Upside of Stress.

“The last stage of any stress response is recovery, when [our] body and brain return to a non-stressed state,” Kelly writes.  Hormones are built into the stress response to help us recover physically and mentally.  “The body relies on a pharmacy of stress hormones to help [us] recover.  For example, cortisol and oxytocin reduce inflammation and restore balance to the autonomic nervous system.  DHEA and nerve growth factor increase neuroplasticity so that [our] brain can learn from stressful experiences.”

2: The stress recovery process takes time, Kelly notes.  “For several hours after [we] have a strong stress response, the brain is rewiring itself to remember and learn from the experience.  During this time, stress hormones increase activity in brain regions that support learning and memory.”

Even though our body is calming down, we still feel mentally charged.  As our brain processes the stressful experience, we often are unable to stop thinking about what happened.  We might feel an impulse to talk with someone about it, or to pray about it.  

If things went well, we “might replay the experience in our mind, remembering everything [we] did and how it worked out.  If things went poorly, [we] might try to understand what happened, imagine what [we] could have done differently, and play out other possible outcomes,” Kelly observes.

3: Emotions often run high during the recovery process.  We may find ourselves too energized or agitated to calm down.  As we recover from a stressful experience, it’s typical to feel fear, shock, anger, guilt, or sadness.  

We may also feel relief, joy, or gratitude.  

“These emotions often coexist during the recovery period and are part of how the brain makes sense of the experience.  They encourage [us] to reflect on what happened and to extract lessons to help us deal with future stress,” writes Kelly.  “They also make the experience more memorable.  The neurochemistry of these emotions render the brain more plastic – a term used to describe how capable the brain is of remodeling itself based on experience.  In this way, emotions that follow stress help [us] learn from experience and create meaning.”

Our brain is processing and integrating the experience.  The process helps our brain to learn and grow.  This is how we learn from stressful experiences.  Our stress response teaches our brain and body how to handle future stress.

“Stress leaves an imprint on [our] brain that prepares [us] to deal with similar stress the next time [we] encounter it.  Not every minor irritation will trigger this process, but when [we] go through a seriously challenging experience, [our] body and brain learn from it.  

“Psychologists call this stress inoculation.  It’s like a stress vaccine for your brain.”  

This is why putting people through “practice stress” is a key aspect of training for NASA astronauts, emergency responders, elite athletes, and others who have to thrive in highly stressful environments.”  [Note: It can also explain the findings of scientists like Stanford’s Karen Parker.

The research shows when we view a stressful situation as an opportunity to learn and improve our skills, knowledge, or strengths, it makes it more likely we will learn from the experience.

More tomorrow.

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Reflection:  Think back on a recent stressful experience.  Identify the process you went through afterward.  How does your experience fit into Kelly’s process described above?

Action: Take a few more moments to journal about it.

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.

More tomorrow.

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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.

Does stress make us more aggressive?

1: Imagine participating in a stressful group task where we compete with strangers in a mock job interview and tests of cognitive ability.  The study maximizes two aspects of stress: the pressure to perform and the threat of being compared with others, Kelly McGonigal shares in The Upside of Stress.

Immediately afterward, we play the Trust Game.  We are given $100.  The other player, a total stranger, is given zero dollars.  If we choose to not trust the stranger, that hundred dollars is split between the two of us.  If we choose to trust the other player, the next decision is up to them.  If they choose to be trustworthy, we each get $200.  If they choose to be untrustworthy, they still get $200, but we get nothing.

How trusting would our “stressed out” group be after completing the mock job interviews and cognitive tests be compared to those who had not been stressed out?

The stressed out group would be more aggressive or selfish, right?

Not so fast.  

In reality, the opposite is true.  Those who had just gone through the stressful experience were 50% more likely to extend trust to a stranger and risk their full share of the winnings.  They were also 50% more likely to be trustworthy, splitting the winnings with the stranger instead of keeping the money for themselves.

“This finding shocks a lot of people,” Kelly observes.  Students in her class at Stanford “raise their hands to argue that the study’s findings are impossible.”

2: What’s going on here?

If we believe stress always produces a fight-or-flight response, this “pro-social” behavior does not make sense.  The stressed out group should be operating from “a dog-eat-dog, competitive mentality, ready to take the money of any suckers who make the mistake of trusting them.”

But we don’t.  

Why does the stressed out group demonstrate unusually high rates of trust and trustworthiness—around 75 percent?

The answer?  Our stress response doesn’t just give us energy.  In many circumstances, it also motivates us to connect with others.  Scientists refer to this as the “tend-and-befriend” response.

“This side of stress is primarily driven by the hormone oxytocin,” Kelly explains.  The primary function of oxytocin is to build and strengthen social bonds.  “Elevated levels of oxytocin make [us] want to connect with others. It creates a craving for social contact, be it through touch, a text message, or a shared beer.”

Oxytocin also enhances our empathy and our intuition.  When our oxytocin levels are high, we are more likely to trust and help people we care about.  During stress, our “pituitary gland releases oxytocin to motivate social connection.”  We show up as the best version of ourselves.  

When something bad happens, and all we want to do is to talk with a friend or a loved one, that’s the stress response encouraging us to seek support.  When we think about our kids, our pets, our family, or our friends, that’s the stress response encouraging us to “protect our tribe,” Kelly states.

3: Oxytocin has one more surprise benefit.

“This so-called love hormone is actually good for cardiovascular health,” Kelly declares.  Our heart “has special receptors for oxytocin, which helps heart cells regenerate and repair from any micro-damage…   When [our] stress response includes oxytocin, stress can literally strengthen [our] heart.  

“This is quite different from the message we usually hear–that stress will give [us] a heart-attack!” Kelly observes.  “There is such a thing as stress-induced heart attack, typically triggered by a massive adrenaline surge, but not every stress response damages [our] heart.”  

Our “stress response has a built-in mechanism for resilience—one that motivates [us] to care for others while also strengthening [our] physical heart.”

More tomorrow.

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Reflection:  What interests or surprises me about Kelly’s insights on stress?  What are my assumptions or beliefs about stress?  

Action:  Journal about my answers to the questions above.

Can changing my mindset change my life?

1: Do we believe all meaningful problems are deeply rooted and difficult to change.”

David Yeager, a mindset researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, shares a story which reveals how deep people’s skepticism can run about the power of short interventions to improve people’s lives.

This week we’re examining multiple studies which show our mindset, or how we think about something, can have a profound impact on our well-being, longevity, and physical health as shared by Kelly McGonigal in The Upside of Stress.

On Monday, we looked at students who participated in a one-hour workshop where they learned if you feel like you don’t belong, you aren’t alone; most people feel that way in a new environment; and over time, this will change.  The one-time intervention improved the students’ academic performance, physical health, and happiness over the next three years, compared with students who had not been randomly selected to receive the intervention.

On Tuesday, we explored research which shows people who have a positive attitude about aging live 7.6 years longer.

Yesterday, we learned about housekeepers who participated in a 15-minute session where they learned they were burning 300 calories an hour by doing their work, the equivalent of weight lifting, water aerobics, or walking at 3.5 miles per hour. Over the next four weeks, they lost weight, had lower blood pressure, and even liked their jobs more.

What’s going on here?

Turns out our reality is determined by our mindset much more than we realize.

2: David’s story involves the second-lowest-income high school in the San Francisco Bay Area.  “The school had some of the lowest test scores in the state.  Almost three-quarters of its students were eligible for a free school lunch.  Many of them had gang affiliations, and 40 percent said they did not feel safe at school,” Kelly writes.

David taught a group of high school freshmen about the “growth mindset—the belief that people can change in significant ways.”  He did this by having the students read a short article introducing a few key ideas: Who you are now is not necessarily who you will be later in life; how people treat you or see you now is not necessarily a sign of who you really are or who you will be in the future; and people’s personalities can change meaningfully over time.

The students also read first-person accounts of upperclassmen describing the experiences that reflected this message of change.  Lastly, the students were asked to write a story about their own experiences of how people, themselves included, could change over time.

The intervention had a profound and lasting impact. 

“At the end of the school year, students who had received the intervention were more optimistic and less overwhelmed by the problems in their lives. They had fewer health problems and were less likely to become depressed than students who had been randomly assigned to a control group.

“A full 81 percent of the students who received the intervention passed their ninth-grade algebra class, compared with only 58 percent of students in the control group. The effect of the intervention on academic achievement was strongest for those whose mindset had changed the most. On average, these students began freshman year with a 1.6 GPA (equivalent to a C–) and ended with a 2.6 GPA (B–),” notes Kelly.

David is passionate about education.  Prior to becoming a researcher, he taught middle school English in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

He gave the school district all of the materials needed to continue offering the mindset intervention, but many schools failed to take action.  The idea that a thirty-minute intervention could alter the trajectory of a person’s life was too unlikely.

“People just don’t believe it’s real,” David said.

3: “That’s the thing about mindset interventions: They seem too good to be true,” Kelly notes. “They contradict a deeply held cultural belief about the process of change itself.  We believe that all meaningful problems are deeply rooted and difficult to change.”

Yes, many problems are deeply rooted, and yet the data is clear: “Small shifts in mindset can trigger a cascade of changes so profound that they test the limits of what seems possible,” says Kelly.  

“We are used to believing that we need to change everything about our lives first, and then we will be happy, or healthy, or whatever it is we think we want to experience.  

“The science of mindsets says we have it backward. Changing our minds can be a catalyst for all the other changes we want to make in our lives.”

More tomorrow.

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Reflection:  Why did many of the schools fail to offer the Growth Mindset class?  How does this research on the power of mindset impact my life?

Action:  Journal about my answers to the questions above.

Can we think away the pounds?

1: Two-thirds of the housekeepers in Stanford Professor Alia Crum‘s study believed they weren’t exercising regularly.  One-third said they got no exercise at all.  

“Their bodies reflected this perception,” Kelly McGonigal notes in The Upside of Stress.  “The average housekeeper’s blood pressure, waist-to-hip ratio, and body weight were exactly what you’d expect to find if they were truly sedentary,”

Their perception was their reality.  

2: Four weeks later, Alia checked in with the housekeepers.  “Those who had been informed that their work was exercise had lost weight and body fat. Their blood pressure was lower. They even liked their jobs more,” Kelly shares.  

Which is different from actual reality: “Housekeeping is strenuous work, burning over 300 calories an hour,” Kelly writes.  “As exercise, that puts it on par with weight lifting, water aerobics, and walking 3.5 miles per hour.  In comparison, office work—such as sitting in meetings or working on a computer—burns roughly 100 calories an hour.”

Alia made a 15-minute presentation to housekeepers at four hotels telling them they were clearly exceeding the surgeon general’s recommendations for physical exercise.  

She also designed a poster describing how housekeeping qualifies as exercise.  “Lifting mattresses to make beds, picking up towels off the floor, pushing heavily loaded carts, and vacuuming—these all require strength and stamina,” Kelly writes.  “The poster even included the calories burned while doing each activity (for example, a 140-pound woman would burn 60 calories cleaning the bathrooms for fifteen minutes).”  Alia hung copies of poster, in both English and Spanish, on the bulletin boards in the housekeepers’ lounges.

The housekeepers at three other hotels were the “control group.”  They received information about how important physical exercise is for health, but Alia did not share that their work qualified as working out.

“They had not made any changes in their behavior outside work. The only thing that had changed was their perception of themselves as exercisers.  In contrast, housekeepers in the control group showed none of these improvements.”

Does this mean we can lose weight by telling ourselves its good to watch television in order to burn calories?  

Sorry, no, Kelly says.  What Alia told the housekeepers was true: The women really were exercising.  Yet, they didn’t see their work that way.  In fact, they were more likely to view housekeeping as hard on their bodies.

Alia’s conclusion?

“The housekeepers’ perception of their work as healthy exercise transformed its effects on their bodies.  In other words, the effect you expect is the effect you get,” Kelly notes.

3: Alia’s next study pushed the power of mindset even further.

“The ‘Shake Tasting Study’ invited hungry participants to come to the laboratory at 8 am after an overnight fast,” Kelly shares. “On their first visit, participants were given a milkshake labeled “Indulgence: Decadence You Deserve,” with a nutritional label showing 620 calories and 30 grams of fat. On their second visit, one week later, they drank a milkshake labeled Sensi-Shake: Guilt-Free Satisfaction,’ with 140 calories and zero grams of fat.”  

The milkshake drinkers were hooked up to an intravenous catheter that drew blood samples.  Alia measured changes in blood levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone. When blood levels of ghrelin go down, we feel full.  When blood levels go up, we start looking for a snack.  When we eat something high in calories or fat, ghrelin levels drop dramatically.  Less-filling foods have less impact.

“One would expect a decadent milkshake and a healthful one to have a very different effect on ghrelin levels—and they did,” notes Kelly.  “Drinking the Sensi-Shake led to a small decline in ghrelin, while consuming the Indulgence shake produced a much bigger drop.

But here’s the thing: The milkshake labels were a sham.  All participants had drank the same 380-calorie milkshake both times.  There should have been no difference in how the participants’ digestive tracts responded. And yet, when they believed the shake was an indulgent treat, their ghrelin levels dropped three times as much as when they thought it was a diet drink.

“Once again, the effect people expected–fullness–was the outcome they got,” Kelly concludes.

More tomorrow.

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Reflection: What surprises me about this research?  In what area might I benefit from choosing to change my mindset?

Action:  Do it.  Today.

How can I add seven years to my life?

1: Do people who have a positive attitude about aging live longer?

The short answer?  

Yes.  More than seven years longer, according to researchers at Yale University who followed middle-aged adults for twenty years.

“Those who had a positive view of aging in midlife lived an average of 7.6 years longer than those who had a negative view,” writes Kelly McGonigal in her terrific book The Upside of Stress.  

“To put that number in perspective, consider this: Many things we regard as obvious and important protective factors, such as exercising regularly, not smoking, and maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, have been shown, on average, to add less than four years to one’s life span.”

Turns out what we believe has a big impact on our longevity.  

2: Our view of aging predicts other important health outcomes, too.  Those with the most positive views of aging had an 80 percent lower risk of heart attack, according to the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, which tracked adults ages eighteen to forty-nine for 38 years.  

In another study, a positive view of aging predicted faster and more complete physical recovery from a debilitating illness or accidents using objective outcomes, such as walking, speed, balance, and the ability to perform daily activities.

3: What’s going on here?  Is this some type of magic?

It’s much more practical than that, Kelly explains.  How we think about aging impacts our health and longevity not through “some mystical power of positive thinking” but by influencing our goals and choices.

The “mindset effect” doesn’t just alter our present experience.  It also impacts our future.

“People with a negative view of aging are more likely to view poor health as inevitable.  Because they feel less capable of maintaining or improving their health as they age, they invest less time and energy in their future well-being,” Kelly observes.  “In contrast, people with a positive attitude toward growing older engage in more health-promoting behaviors, like exercising regularly and following their doctor’s advice.”

Scientists at the German Centre of Gerontology in Berlin followed older adults over time to track the impact of a serious illness or accident, such as a broken hip, lung disease, or cancer.  Those with a positive view of aging responded to the crisis by being proactive and dedicated to their recovery.  They also reported greater life satisfaction.  Older adults who had a more negative view of aging were “less likely to take actions to improve their health.  These choices, in turn, influenced recovery.”

How we think influences how we act.

More tomorrow.

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Reflection: What’s surprising or noteworthy to me about this research?  What is my mindset about getting older?

Action:  Share with my spouse, colleague, or friend.

A 12-minute exercise that will change your life

Yesterday, we looked at the powerful benefits of writing about our values.  Let’s put this theory into action.  

When?  Right now.  This will take no longer than 12 minutes.

Step one: What are your values?  Click on this link and pick your top three values.  Values are simply what you care about.  Your values are what you feel is important and meaningful.  They can be an attitude, a strength, or even a community you care about.  Feel free to write down something that is not on the list.  

Step two: Once you’ve selected three values that are personally meaningful to you, select one of your values and write about it for ten minutes.  Describe why this value is important to you or how you live this value in your everyday life, including what you did today or yesterday.  If you are facing a difficult decision, consider how this value might guide you.  Keep your pen moving for ten minutes.

That’s it.  A minute or two of identifying your values.  Ten minutes spent writing about one value.

This exercise is included in Kelly McGonigal‘s brilliant book The Upside of Stress.  As Kelly notes, “People who write about their values once, for ten minutes, show benefits months or even years later.”

All of our associates did this exercise last April as part of our most recent NotTheTypicalQuarterlyBusinessMeeting.  Also, known at PCI as our QBM.  

At the start of 2021, I had challenged all of our associates to keep a gratitude journal for the first 100-days of the year.

As part of our April QBM, I encouraged my colleagues to incorporate their values into their daily gratitude’s.  

Because the research shows that writing about our values in empowering.  “When people are connected to their values, they are more likely to believe they can improve their situation through effort and the support of others.  That makes them more likely to take positive action and less likely to use avoidant coping strategies like procrastination or denial,” Kelly writes.  

“They are also more likely to view the adversity they are going through as temporary, and less likely to think the problem reveals something unalterably screwed up about themselves and their lives,” she states.  “In other words, as you reflect on your values, the story you tell yourself about stress shifts.  You see yourself as strong and able to grow from adversity.”

Why is this exercise so powerful?

“The lasting benefits are not the direct result of the ten minute writing period,” Kelly concludes, “but of the mindset Tuesday’s RWD shift it inspired.”

__________________

Reflection: What are my most important values?

Action:  Select one value and write about it for ten minutes.  Extra credit: Journal about how I am living or experiencing my values each day for the next 21 days.  

How writing about our values can improve our lives  

Back in the 1990s a group of Stanford students agreed to keep journals over the winter break.  

“Some were asked to write about their most important values, and how the day’s activities related to those values,” writes Kelly McGonigol in The Upside of Stress.  “Others were asked to write about the good things that happened to them.” 

Yesterday, we explored how our mindset drives our behavior.  Our mindsets are also changeable.  The new field of mindset science demonstrates how even a single brief intervention designed to change how we think about something can improve our health, happiness, and success, even years into the future.

Exhibit one: writing about our values.

When the Stanford students returned, the researchers asked each of them to write about their three-week break.   

“The students who had written about their values were in better health and better spirits,” Kelly writes.  “Over the break, they experienced fewer illnesses and health problems.  Heading back to school, they were more confident about their abilities to handle stress.  The positive effect of writing about values was greatest for those students who had experienced the most stress over break.”

When the researchers analyzed more than two thousand pages of the students’ journals, they observed writing about their values helped those students see the meaning in their lives. “Stressful experiences were no longer simply hassles to endure; they became expressions of the student’s values.  Giving a younger sibling a ride reflected how much a student cared about his family.  Working on an application for an internship was a way to take a step toward future goals.”

Moments that otherwise might have seemed annoying or tiresome became moments of meaning.

Dozens of similar experiments have been done since then.  “It turns out writing about our values is one of the most effective psychological interventions ever studied,” Kelly states.  

In the short term, writing about our values makes us feel more powerful and in control as well as more loving, connected and empathetic to others.  

In the long term, writing about our values has been shown to boost GPAs, reduce doctor visits, improve mental health, and aid with everything from weight loss, quitting smoking, and persevere in the face of discrimination.

“In many cases, these benefits are a result of a onetime mindset intervention,” Kelly writes.  “People who write about their values once, for ten minutes, show benefits months or even years later.”

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Reflection:  What are some of my values?  What do I feel is important and meaningful in life?  

Action:  Write down my values.  Today.

Can how we think about something transform its effect on us?

1: Scientist Alia Crum has an unusual track record of high-profile findings.

“By changing how people think about an experience, she can change what’s happening in their bodies,” Kelly McGonigal observes in The Upside of Stress.  “Her work gets attention because it shows that our physical reality is more subjective than we believe.” 

What is the single idea that motivates Alia’s research?

How we think about something can transform its effect on us.

Can a three-minute video about the positive effects of stress alter the neurohormones in our brain which then impact how we react to stress?

In a word: yes.

“Her findings are so surprising,” Kelly writes, “that they make a lot of people scratch their heads and say, ‘Huh?  Is that even possible?'”

2: The key to understanding Alia’s research is to understand the power of mindset.  

A mindset is a set of core beliefs which reflect our philosophy of life.  “The beliefs that become mindsets transcend preferences, learned facts, or intellectual opinions,” Kelly writes. 

“A mindset is usually based on a theory about how the world works,” Kelly explains.  “For example, that the world is getting less safe, that money will make you happy, that everything happens for a reason, or that people cannot change.  All of these beliefs have the potential to shape how you interpret experiences and make decisions.”

Why are mindsets so important? 

Because our mindset determines how we think, feel, and act. 

“When a mindset gets activated—by a memory, a situation you find yourself in, or a remark someone makes—it sets off a cascade of thoughts, emotions, and goals that shape how we respond to life,” Kelly explains.

And, “the consequences of a mindset snowball over time, increasing in influence and long-term impact.”

3: What’s most interesting, Kelly observes, is how “the new field of mindset science shows that a single brief intervention, designed to change how we think about something, can improve our health, happiness, and success, even years into the future.

More tomorrow.

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Reflection: What are some of the mindsets that reflect my philosophy of life?  Where and when did these mindsets begin?  Are they serving me in a positive way today?    

Action:  Journal about my answers to the questions above.

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.

How changing our view of stress changes our life

1: It was 2008.  The economy was in free fall.  

“The financial industry is a notoriously stressful place to work,” Kelly McGonigal writes in The Upside of Stress.  “One study found that within ten years of entering the industry, 100 percent of investment bankers developed at least one condition associated with burnout, such as insomnia, alcoholism, or depression.”

The 2008 economic collapse ratcheted up the pressure: “Financial workers reported significantly greater workplace stress, fear of layoffs, exhaustion, and burnout. Across the industry, there were widespread reports of increased anxiety, depression, and suicide,” Kelly reports. 

Like other investment banks, UBS was hit hard.  The value of shares dropped 58 percent. The bank initiated major layoffs and cut employee compensation by 36 percent. 

This was the backdrop for scientist Alia Crum to test whether a brief learning regarding the positive aspects of stress could help UBSers thrive during times of high stress.

2: In the middle of the meltdown, UBS associates received an email from human resources inviting them to participate in a stress-management program.  388 UBSers signed up—half men, half women, with an average age of thirty-eight.  “These stress-mindset guinea pigs were dealing with an increased workload, uncontrollable work demands, and enormous uncertainty about their own futures. So, yes, they knew stress,” Kelly writes. 

Each participant was randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group, with 164 associates, received an online training that delivered a message that stress is inherently negative. The second group, with 163 associates, received an online training designed to give them a more positive view of stress.  A smaller control group of 61 associates got no training at all. 

Over the course of one week, those in groups one and two received emails with links to three videos that were each three minutes long.  Those in the first group were treated to statistics like “Stress is America’s number one health issue” and “Stress is linked to the six leading causes of death.”  The videos warned that stress “can lead to mood swings, emotional exhaustion, and memory loss.”

Those in the stress-is-enhancing group saw very different videos. These videos explained how stress can increase physical resilience, enhance focus, deepen relationships, and strengthen personal values.  The videos included examples of companies and people who thrived during challenging times and performed heroically when faced with stress.

All participants completed surveys before and after the online trainings. 

3: The results were clear.  Those “who watched the negative videos became even more convinced that stress was harmful.”  Those who viewed the positive videos developed a more positive view of stress.  They reported a more balanced view of stress than before the intervention.  

“The change was statistically significant,” Kelly notes.  “But it wasn’t a complete reversal.  Instead of viewing stress as predominantly harmful, they now saw both the good and bad in stress.”

There were other benefits for this group.  They were “less anxious and depressed. They reported fewer health problems, like back pain and insomnia. They also reported greater focus, engagement, collaboration, and productivity at work,” Kelly writes. 

More tomorrow.

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Reflection:  When in my past have I performed at my best during stressful situations?  How might my body’s stress response aided in my performance?

Action:  Read Kelly’s book The Upside of Stress to learn more.