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.


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.

How stress actually improves our performance

1: We’ve got it all wrong.

We’ve been taught that stress is bad for us.

This belief is harmful, Kelly McGonigal argues in The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It: “The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.”

The fight-or-flight survival instinct is part of our stress response.  When something major happens, our sympathetic nervous system directs our entire body to mobilize energy.  Our liver dumps fat and sugar into our bloodstream for fuel.  Our breathing deepens so that more oxygen is delivered to our heart.  And our heart rate speeds up to deliver the oxygen, fat, and sugar to our muscles and brain.  In all these ways, our stress response gets us ready to face whatever challenges lie in front of us.

“This part of the stress response can give [us] extraordinary physical abilities,” Kelly writes.  “There are countless news reports of so-called hysterical strength attributed to stress, including the story of two teenage girls in Lebanon, Oregon, who raised a three-thousand-pound tractor off their father, who was trapped underneath. ‘I don’t know how I lifted it, it was just so heavy,’ one of the girls told reporters. ‘But we just did it.’  Many people have this kind of experience during stress: [We] don’t know how they find the strength or courage to act.  But when it matters most, [our] bodies give [us] the energy and will to do what’s necessary.”

The energy we get from stress doesn’t just help our body.  Adrenaline also wakes up our brain.  Our pupils dilate to let in more light, and our hearing sharpens.  “Mind-wandering stops, and less important priorities drop away. Stress can create a state of concentrated attention,” notes Kelly.  

We “also get a motivation boost from a chemical cocktail of endorphins, adrenaline, testosterone, and dopamine.  This side of the stress response is one reason some people enjoy stress– it provides a bit of a rush.  Together, these chemicals increase [our] sense of confidence and power.  They make [us] more willing to pursue [our] goals,” Kelly writes.  If we “get a thrill out of watching a close game or rushing to meet a deadline, [we] know this side of stress.”

2: “However, as many scientists have pointed out, fistfights and quick escapes are not ideal coping strategies for the situations humans deal with every day,” Kelly observes.  

How does a fight-or-flight response help us deal with the threat of being fired?  What happens if we flee our relationships, kids, or job every time things get difficult?  We can’t “punch a past-due mortgage payment,” and it isn’t wise to disappear every time there’s a conflict at home or at work.

If the body’s response to stress is always fight-or-flight, then the stress response begins to look like “evolutionary baggage,” Kelly notes.  “This is the mismatch theory of the stress response—it worked out for our ancestors, but not for us.”

Let’s be clear, she says, “A stress response that supported only two survival strategies—throw a punch or run like hell—would truly be a mismatch for modern life.”

3: But the human stress response turns out to be much more complex and adaptive.

“Fleeing and fighting are not the only strategies [our] body supports.  As with humans themselves, the stress response has evolved, adapting over time to better fit the world we live in now.”

Our body’s answer?  The challenge response.

“Like a fight-or-flight response, a challenge response gives [us] energy and helps [us] perform under pressure,” Kelly notes.  Our heart rate still goes up, our adrenaline spikes, our muscles and brain get more fuel, and our feel-good chemicals surge.

How does the challenge response differ from a fight-or-flight response?

We feel focused, but not fearful.  We release a different ratio of stress hormones, including higher levels of DHEA, which help us recover and learn from stress.

“People who report being in a flow state—a highly enjoyable state of being completely absorbed in what [we] are doing—display clear signs of a challenge response,” says Kelly.  “Artists, athletes, surgeons, video-gamers, and musicians all show this kind of stress response when they’re engaged in their craft or skill.

“Contrary to what many people expect, top performers in these fields aren’t physiologically calm under pressure; rather, they have strong challenge responses.  The stress response gives them access to their mental and physical resources, and the result is increased confidence, enhanced concentration, and peak performance,” Kelly notes.

More tomorrow.

Reflection: What are my beliefs about stress?  Rather than reduce or avoid stress, when can I embrace it?

Action:  Discuss with my spouse, friend or colleague.

What exactly is “stress?”

One of our challenges with stress is understanding exactly what it is.

We use the term stress both to describe a traffic delay and a death in the family. 

We say we are stressed when we feel busy, frustrated, anxious, or under pressure.  We might find ourselves “getting stressed out by email, politics, the news, the weather, or our growing to-do list,” Kelly McGonigal writes in The Upside of Stress

“Stress is commonly used to describe trivial irritations, but it’s just as likely to be shorthand for more serious psychological challenges such as depression and anxiety,” Kelly writes.  

Our biggest sources of stress vary widely depending on our circumstances and our season of life.  We might be most stressed about work, parenting, illness, getting out of debt, or going through a divorce. 

The problem is stress has become a “catch-all term for anything we don’t want to experience,” observes Kelly, “and everything that’s wrong with the world.” 

In an effort to be more specific about what stress is, Kelly suggests a new definition: “Stress arises when something you care about is at stake.”

The benefits of this definition include that it is big enough to hold both the frustration over traffic and the grief over a loss. It includes our thoughts, emotions, and physical reactions when we’re feeling stressed, as well as how we choose to cope with situations we’d describe as stressful. 

“This definition also highlights an important truth about stress,” notes Kelly: “Stress and meaning are inextricably linked. You don’t stress out about things you don’t care about, and you can’t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress.”

The link between stress and meaning may help explain why some people don’t view stress as something to be avoided, but rather to be embraced.  When we care about something, we are more likely to take action to overcome or remove the stress. We seek information, help, or advice.  We accept a stressful event has occurred and put together a strategy to deal with it.  

With this mindset, we are more likely to view stressful situations as a challenge, not an overwhelming problem.  We gain confidence we can address challenges, and are better able to find meaning in difficult circumstances.

The research shows people who believe stress is enhancing “are less depressed and more satisfied with their lives than those who believe stress is harmful,” writes Kelly.  We “have more energy and fewer health problems. We’re happier and more productive at work.” 

More tomorrow.


Reflection: Consider a current challenge in my life.  Am I addressing it head-on or avoiding it?  What would be a good next step to take?

Action:  Take it.

How did stress get its bad reputation?

In 1936, the Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye injected rats with a hormone from cow’s ovaries. Things did not go well.  The lab rats developed bleeding ulcers.  

Next, Hans injected the rats with a salt solution and a hormone isolated from a cow’s placenta. The rats developed the same symptoms.  Next up was an injection made from kidneys and spleens, Kelly McGonigal writes in her book The Upside of Stress.  

Same result: sick rats.

“Eventually, Selye had a flash of insight: The rats weren’t getting sick because of what they were injected with, but because of what they were experiencing,” Kelly writes.  “Selye found that he could create the same symptoms by subjecting rats to any uncomfortable experience: exposing them to extreme heat or cold, forcing them to exercise without rest, blasting them with noise, giving them toxic drugs.”

The rats reminded Hans of his old human patients whose bodies were falling apart: “They seemed worn out and run down.  At the time, Selye called it ‘sick syndrome’,” Kelly writes.  “Perhaps, he reasoned, the cumulative wear and tear of life’s challenges weakened the body.” 

This is how the science of stress began.

“Here is where Selye made the grand leap from rat experiments to human stress,” states Kelly.  “He hypothesized that many conditions plaguing humans, from allergies to heart attacks, were the result of the process he had observed in his rats.  Selye’s leap from rats to humans was theoretical, not experimental.  He had studied lab animals all his life.  But that didn’t keep him from speculating about humans.” 

Hans then made another decision that forever changed how the world thought about stress, Kelly observes. 

“He chose to define stress in a way that went far beyond his laboratory methods with rats.  Stress, he claimed, was the response of the body to any demand made on it.  It wasn’t just a response to noxious injections, traumatic injuries, or brutal laboratory conditions, but to anything that requires action or adaptation. 

“By defining stress in this way, Selye set the stage for our modern terror about stress,” writes Kelly.

So, was Selye right? 

Yes.  And, no.

Kelly writes: “If you’re the human equivalent of Selye’s rats—deprived, tortured, or abused—then, yes, your body will pay a price. There is ample scientific evidence that severe or traumatic stress can harm your health.  However, Selye defined stress so broadly that it includes not just trauma, violence, and abuse, but also just about everything that happens to you,” Kelly writes.  “To Selye, stress was synonymous with the body’s reaction to life.”

Later in his life, Hans realized not all stressful experiences will make you sick.  “He started talking about good stress (eustress) as an antidote to bad stress (distress),” writes Kelly.  “He even tried to improve stress’s image, saying in a 1970s interview, ‘There is always stress, so the only point is to make sure that it is useful to yourself and useful to others.’  

“But it was too late,” Kelly observes.  “Selye’s work had already instilled a general fear about stress in the general public and the medical community.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection:  How might I benefit from redefining my view of stress? 

Action: Have a conversation with someone I’m close to about our experience with stress.  

Win or…?

Are we approaching life with zest or avoiding it? Is our real goal hoping to avoid challenge and failure? Put another way: do we see obstacles as threats or as challenges to get better?

This week we’re looking at some of the lessons from Brian Johnson’s Optimize course. The big idea for today is: happy people are open to life’s experiences. Brian encourages us to adopt a playful attitude towards life.

Instead of: win or lose, we can think: win or… learn. Doing so allows us to approach our mistakes with curiosity. We are scientists wearing lab coats running experiments, looking for data on what works and what doesn’t, and what we can modify to be more successful. Not everything we do is going to work out beautifully. In fact, few things will… at first. But each time we stumble, we learn. We improve. We get better.

Turns out how we view things makes a huge difference. Like stress. In her book The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal shares compelling research that if we think stress is harmful, it is. Instead, we can choose to see stress and stressful events as giving us energy to meet life’s challenges.

To act this way requires courage, which Aristotle tells us is the most important of all human virtues. Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s feeling the fear… and then getting on with it. Doing what needs to be done.

Brian gives us some strategies to access our courage. Ask: What’s important now? What needs to get done? Stand up straight. Breathe deeply. Then say: “Bring it on!”

Interesting science: the research shows in stressful situations when we say, “I’m excited” we perform significantly better than when we tell ourselves to “relax.”