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Book Notes and Takeaways: The Upside of Stress


Author and Stanford Professor, Kelly McGonigal continues the conversation from her TED Talk ‘How to make stress your friend‘ and challenges the conventional negative perception towards stress. She shares research behind how leveraging positive psychology creates the right mindset towards stress and actually enriches our day to day life instead of taking away from it.

How you think about stress affects everything from your cardiovascular health to your ability to find meaning in life. The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.

Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress

Key Takeaways

  • Mindsets are beliefs and have both short term and long term impact. When you view stress as helpful, it actually helps change the types of hormones we secrete to manage stressful situations. This allows us to respond differently and possibly perform better.
  • Stress is a response that’s meant to help. Your body’s response to stress is actually biologically there to HELP you through a hard experience. When you try to tamper that down by telling yourself to “calm down” or get rid of those feelings, you’re actually hindering your ability to draw on your body’s response as a resource to help you think clearly, have more energy, and rise to the occasion.
  • Stress alone is not harmful. It is the combination of stress and the mindset that stress is bad for you that causes long term impacts on health. When viewed through a positive mindset, it can be seen as a resource. In fact, it’s been proven that when you perceive stress as limiting, study participants tended towards more self-destructive behaviors as a means to cope.
  • Benefits of Stress. When stress is viewed through a positive mindset, studies have shown how stress has a positive impact on the following:
    • Improved cognitive function.
    • Increased empathy.
    • Renewed purpose or meaning in life.
    • Take on more challenges.
    • Builds resilience and courage.
  • How to Rethink Stress:
    • Excitement versus Anxiety. Reframing stress as “I am excited” instead of “Calm down” helps you feel empowered by stress. It can transfer your stress response from a fight-or-flight responses to a challenge-response, which has been shown to increase confidence and improve performance.
    • Normalize it. Understanding that stress is a normal and an expected part of life helps make it feel less isolating. Feelings of isolation have been shown to have a leading impact on a negative sense of well-being.
    • Bigger-than-self mindset. When you extend your perspective of tasks beyond the benefit it provides to yourself but to how it provides value to others, it can elevate even the most basic tasks.

Quotes to Remember

  • Stress happens when something you care about is at stake. It’s not a sign to run away – it’s a sign to step forward.
  • 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 backwards. Changing our minds can be a catalyst for all the other changes we want to make in our lives.
  • Feeling burdened rather than uplifted by everyday duties is more a mindset than a measure of what is going on in your life.
  • It turns out that how you think about stress is also one of those core beliefs that can affect your health, happiness, and success. As we’ll see, your stress mindset shapes everything from the emotions you feel during a stressful situation to the way you cope with stressful events. That, in turn, can determine whether you thrive under stress or end up burned out and depressed. The good news is, even if you are firmly convinced that stress is harmful, you can still cultivate a mindset that helps you thrive.

Yina’s Reflection

While doing research for this post, I came across quite a number of negative reviews within the science community that challenges McGonigal’s approach to stress and stands their ground on the ill effects of stress.

Regardless, as someone who wants to improve her stress tolerance, I still found a lot of value in this book.

This may be a placebo effect of sorts but even if scientific results were inconsequential, anything that can help me approach stress in a more positive way and enable me to take on larger challenges, I will eat up with a spoon. Spoon and all.

Stress is a loathsome “bad guy” in our games of life, the boss that stands in the way of us reaching that next level in our lives. Collecting weapons to combat this villain has been part of my own hero’s journey so to speak. But reinterpreting that stress, in true Wreck-it-Ralph fashion (great movie, btw, as are Pixar movies in general), as an ally and not an enemy has truly been empowering. I’m learning to discard the sledgehammer I’ve stashed in my toolbelt as a means to crush my stress response when it rears its ugly head.

Being the Bad Guy - GIF on Imgur

For example, when explaining how stress improves resilience, McGonigal references a study of squirrel monkeys that test the assumption that early life stress leads to emotional instability by separating young monkeys from their moms.

What the study showed however, was the opposite: “Stress led to resilience…[they] were less anxious than the more sheltered monkeys…they explored more in new environments, showed greater curiosity, were quicker to solve mental challenges, and showed greater self-control.”

Brain scans even showed demonstrative results: “monkeys who had been separated from their moms developed larger prefrontal cortexes.”

Despite some of the negative backlash from the scientific community, I thoroughly enjoyed McGonigal’s writing, where she effectively weaves storytelling with factual data. We are all under the subtle influence of people and ideas around us, and it is up to us to decide what we want to influence us. For me, perhaps I’m choosing to be fooled that stress is good for me in light of the goals I have ahead.

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