Most of us know that stress is bad. It’s hard to go a week or maybe even a day without hearing how terrible stress is for us. Stress causes high blood pressure, headaches, insomnia, chest pain and other health problems.
Maybe for you, it’s even hard to go a week or a day without feeling stressed. Maybe you feel worn-out, overwhelmed and defeated because of stress. You don’t need to read the articles, because you can feel the negative effects.
But here’s something that might surprise you: Stress isn’t all bad. In fact, it can be beneficial. And by revising our view of stress, we can reap the rewards.
Health psychologist and Stanford lecturer Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D, spent years educating people about the devastating effects of stress. Then she came across this study, which inspired her to take another look at stress and the incredible influence of our beliefs. The researchers found that a person’s stress level wasn’t the only thing associated with poor health. The perception that stress is harmful also was significant.
As McGonigal explains in her eye-opening, empowering book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good At It:
High levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. But — and this is what got my attention — that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.
We often want to shrink our stress or eliminate it from our lives altogether. We may dream about savoring a stress-free existence. But according to McGonigal, “The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.”
In the Upside to Stress, McGonigal shares the latest science on stress, the history of stress, her conversations with researchers and stories from her students. She concludes that stress is most likely to be harmful when: we feel inadequate to deal with it; we isolate ourselves; and the stress has no meaning and feels like it’s against our will.
She also features exercises and ideas to help readers make the most of stress. Here are a few of my favorites to help us embrace stress.
Stress and Meaning
High levels of stress are associated with distress. This isn’t surprising. But you might be surprised to learn that they’re also associated with well-being. McGonigal calls this the “stress paradox.” She notes that “happy lives are not stress-free, nor does a stress-free life guarantee happiness.” The answer may lie in meaning. According to McGonigal:
…For example, the Gallup World Poll found that raising a child under eighteen significantly increases the chance that you will experience a great deal of stress every day — and that you will smile and laugh a lot each day. Entrepreneurs who say that they experienced a great deal of stress yesterday are also more likely to say that they learned something interesting that day. Rather than being a sign that something is wrong with your life, feeling stressed can be a barometer for how engaged you are in activities and relationships that are personally meaningful.
This makes sense. You can be in the healthiest, happiest marriage and still experience the stress of conflict or life transitions. You can have the best job and still have projects, presentations or clients that stress you out.
Stress also leads us to want to make meaning. “Human beings have an innate instinct and capacity to make sense out of their suffering. This instinct is even part of the biological stress response, often experienced as rumination, spiritual inquiry, and soul-searching,” McGonigal writes.
She suggests thinking about what brings meaning to your life. List your most meaningful roles, relationships, activities or goals. Consider in what areas of your life you experience joy, love or laughter; are learning; or have a sense of purpose. Would you also describe these areas as sometimes or often stressful?
If your role, relationship, activity or goal is both meaningful and stressful, write about why it’s important to you. You also can write about what would happen if you lost this source of meaning. How would you feel? Would you want it back?
Focusing on Skills, Strengths and Resources
According to McGonigal, we also can change our relationship to stress by choosing to see the upside of painful experiences. In another exercise she suggests thinking of a past experience where you persevered or learned something important. Set your timer for 15 minutes and consider responding to any or all of these questions:
- What did you do that helped you get through the experience?
- What personal resources did you draw on?
- What strengths did you use?
- Did you seek out any other support, such as information or advice?
- What did this experience teach you about coping with adversity?
- How did it make you stronger?
Next, think about a current situation you’re struggling with, and consider these questions:
- Which of your strengths and resources can you draw on?
- Are there any coping skills or strengths you’d like to develop?
- If there are, how can you start by using this situation as an opportunity for growth?
Setting Stressful Goals
McGonigal mentions this idea in the final chapter: Instead of creating New Year’s resolutions, her close friend, husband and teenage son each pick a personal project that’s both meaningful and difficult. “They talk about what their stress edge will be — what they expect to be challenging, what they might feel anxious about, and the strengths that they want to develop.”
Stress isn’t all bad. And it’s certainly not all good. Stress is complex. But revising our perception of stress as public enemy number one can help us cope more effectively. It can help us take a more balanced approach. It can help us learn, grow and make meaning.
According to McGonigal instead of asking ourselves “Is stress bad?” or “Is stress good?” a better question may be: “Do I believe I have the capacity to transform stress into something good?” If you don’t think you do, then it’s simply something for you to work on. Which you can.
Man on a mountain top photo available from Shutterstock