From wrecking your workouts to sabotaging your sleep, stress can wreak havoc on your life. But it can also be energizing, motivating and life changing — if you embrace it. That’s the theory behind a new book called The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good At It, by Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a lecturer at Stanford University. Based on a course McGonigal teaches called the New Science of Stress, the book offers loads of stress-related research, along with mental exercises and personal stories to present a compelling argument that stress may not be so bad. “It’s about seeing stress as a challenge rather than a threat,” McGonigal says.
She didn’t always see it that way, though. “I made a career out of telling people stress is the enemy and they need to reduce it,” says McGonigal. But that all changed when she came across an intriguing study published in 2012. It shows that, yes, stress increased participants’ mortality. But there was one major catch: Stress only increased mortality when people believed it was harmful to their health. “When people had a lot of stress in their lives and didn’t hold that view, they seemed to be protected against mortality,” says McGonigal.
If you sprint away from stressful situations like you’re gunning for a medal, you probably see stress as a threat. “When you view stress as inherently harmful, you shy away from things that are difficult and meaningful, whether that’s repairing a relationship or seeking out a promotion,” says McGonigal.
If, on the other hand, you welcome stress, you’ll see it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Even better: Viewing stressors in a positive light may help you feel like you can overcome it. “Studies show that people who think of stress this way are more likely to feel like they have the resources to handle it, such as self-efficacy and self-confidence,” says McGonigal.
How Do You Get Good at Stress?
If you’re thinking, “OK, this is all well and good, but how do I actually change my mind about stress?” we don’t blame you. The cultural thinking about stress is so deeply ingrained that it can be hard to shake loose, but McGonigal offers a few tips:
1. Repeat This Phrase: “I’m Excited”
When you start stressing, call on a motivating mantra. “Tell yourself you’re excited,” says McGonigal. In one study cited by McGonigal, researchers put participants through stressful situations, like mock job interviews, and evaluated their bodies’ responses. Before the interviews, each participant watched one of two videos about stress. One presented stress as an “enhancing” chance to learn and grow, and as something that could be helpful to job performance. The other video claimed that stress was more debilitating to both health and work-related performance than people thought. The purpose: To analyze how the videos affected participants’ levels of cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), two stress hormones.
“People who had experienced the most stressful events were also the most likely to think they led meaningful lives.”
Neither video affected levels of cortisol, which is associated with things like impaired immune function and depression when it’s present in higher levels, says McGonigal. It was only when they did the mock interviews that cortisol levels went up. But when participants watched the video that presented stress as a positive thing, their brains released more DHEA, which can help reduce your risk of anxiety, depression, and alleviate whole host of other things that higher levels of cortisol (aka: stress) can bring about. Yup, positivity may literally change the way stress hormones react in your brain.
2. Keep Your Eye on the Prize
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, thinking of the long-term benefits of your situation might help. “You can deal with stressful life experiences with strength from past ones,” says McGonigal. One study out of Hope College showed that after two minutes of thinking of the positive outcomes of a tough experience, participants felt happier and more in control of their lives. So when you’re freaking out about a presentation because you’re certain you’ll bomb, remember that you’ll learn from the experience, no matter how terrible or awesome.
3. Make a Stress Playlist
A group fitness instructor on the side, McGonigal loves making playlists to help her power past rough patches — just like she does to help her get through a workout. “Exercise is a way of practicing being good at stress. It’s uncomfortable, but there’s also the payoff,” says McGonigal. Create a list of songs that would hype you up if you were an Olympic athlete about to compete. “In the moment, when you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, put on one of those songs. Research shows music can shift the physiology of your stress response and increase your confidence,” says McGonigal. Lady Gaga, anyone?
4. Remember That Stress = Meaning
Even though stress is scary, it helps make life more worthwhile. “One study found that people who have meaningful lives also experience more stress, any way you want to measure it,” says McGonigal. Researchers let participants define “meaning” however they liked, but summed it up as a life with “purpose and value.” The study authors found that people who had experienced the most stressful events were also the most likely to think they led meaningful lives. Sure, you could try to completely eradicate stress from your life, but you’d also be erasing most of what’s meaningful along with it. Instead, open your arms, embrace stress, and use it to your benefit.
Originally posted May 2015. Updated May 2016.