The Upside of Stress

“Embracing stress is a radical act of self-trust.”

I have wanted to recommend this book to a lot of people−all of whom do not have the time to read. So I thought I’d share my reading notes. Here is your 4-minute read of the highlights of Kelly McGonigal’s latest book. It does not replace reading the whole book of course, but you get the idea. You can thank me later. 

The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It by Kelly McGonigal. 

Research about stress shows that our received beliefs and knowledge about stress are creating havoc in our life experiences. Turns out that, according to recent research on stress, “it [isn’t] stress alone that [is] killing people. It [is] the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful.”

McGonigal’s definition: “Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake.” 

“Seeing the upside of stress is not about deciding whether stress is either all good or all bad. It’s about how choosing to see the good in stress can help you meet the challenges in your life.”

This book is essentially a mindset intervention in 3 steps:

1) the new point of view

2) exercises to adopt the new mindset

3) opportunity to share with others (common humanity)

Mindsets are points of view about anything in your life. They shape your reality. For example, to some, sunny days are the best. For people like me, sunny warm days are uncomfortable and aggravating. Yes, it’s a mindset.  

Your mindset about stress falls into one of two broad categories:

1) Stress is harmful.

2) Stress is enhancing.  


A new point of view. 

Stress can be enhancing.

Did you know? A stronger physical stress response predicts long-term recovery from a traumatic event.

Research shows that childhood stress leads to enhanced resilience in adulthood.

Most of us have heard about the fight-or-flight stress response, but it turns out that we have more than one stress reaction in our repertoire.

We now know that stress can lead to the challenge response, associated with focus, heightened senses, increased motivation. It is related to the flow state that creatives and inspired individuals describe. 

We also know that stress can lead to the tend-and-befriend response, which activates our prosocial instincts, encourages social connection, dampens fear and increases courage and hope. Remember the deep connection you created with the stranger sitting next to you on the very bumpy flight back home across the Atlantic ocean. Yes, we are capable of caring for each other. It empowers us. When you choose to help others, you choose hope, you choose to empower yourself. Think about that for a few minutes. 

Finally, the stress hormones may have bad press (maybe they need a new name), but we now understand that they contribute to the learning and growing capacities of the brain. They help us process and integrate our experiences so we can learn. As a result, the brain matter grows more. (I almost want to infer that a healthy dose of stress helps the brain stay younger, longer.)

“When you feel your body responding to stress, ask yourself which part of the stress response you need most.”   


Exercices to adopt a new mindset

“People with very meaningful lives worry more and have more stress than people with less meaningful lives.” 

The stress you experience in your life can be a barometer for how engaged you are in activities and relationships. Think of it this way: the sources of stress in your life probably overlap with the sources of meaning in your life. What brings meaning to your life? What are your values?

Mindfulness is not relaxation. It is the ability to pay attention and accept your thoughts, sensations, emotions. Listen. 

Avoiding stress is not a valid method of dealing with stress. The same way that abstinence may sound like the ideal solution to mitigate the risks of unwanted pregnancy and STDs, we all know it’s not a valid option. People who try to avoid stress (and sexual intercourse, for that matter) are more likely to become depressed and to experience residual stress from the effort it takes to avoid stressful situations. 

“Everyone has an Everest.” Ignoring yours may be the biggest mistake of your lifetime. You are enough. You can handle it. 

“Embracing stress is an act of bravery, one that requires choosing meaning over avoiding discomfort.”

Be prosocial. Helping others in small actions is an excellent way to create the biology of courage and hope. “When individuals feel time constrained, they should become more generous with their time−despite their inclination to be less so.” In essence, feeling alone in your suffering is the biggest barrier to transforming stress. Be aware that others experience stress too, and be open about your own experience. This is called common humanity. 

Remember the bigger picture. Reflect on your bigger-than-self goals, your mission.

Difficult situations and failures are catalysts for growth and learning. In other words, adversity creates resilience. Reflect on your own setbacks. How did they empower you? What strengths, resources did you discover in yourself? (This does not mean that you ignore or overwrite the suffering.) Pay attention to your personal narratives and to the narratives of those that surround you. Do you focus on growth, resilience, learning? Can you express acceptance for you hardships? If not, it may be time to rewrite those stories with an eye for resilience. 


What has been observed in people who adopt a positive mindset about stress: 

A stronger physical stress response is associated with higher exam scores;

Emotional exhaustion is less likely;

Anxiety is a form of excitement and motivation; 

Believe that they hold the ability and resources to handle it (the situation);

Show greater confidence and engagement;

Experience less anxiety, shame and avoidance;

Perform better.


Want to help someone who is experiencing pressure? Tell them you think that they can handle it and that their stress will improve their performance. 

“Whatever the sensations of stress are, worry less about trying to make them go away, and focus more on what you are going to do with the energy, strength, and drive that stress gives you.”

“Viewing your stress response as a resource works because it helps you believe “I can do this.”