Your heart beats fast, your breathing becomes shallower, your mouth might start to feel dry. Your senses sharpen. You are ready, probably to fight or flee. You certainly know this state well. Me too. That’s why there have already been so many articles on this blog about stress, how to manage, to reduce, avoid, or balance it. I’m not sure if I even want to revisit those blogs now as this current one might contradict them!
While I still consider stress to be a problem, the book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and how to Get Good at it by Kelly McGonigal has changed my attitude about its impact. Given that stress is an inevitable part of life, the book argues that we should accept, embrace and even appreciate our ability to stress. It is not my intention to convince you to take on more stress, but what I would like to do in this blog is motivate you to change your mindset about stress.
Fight or flight is the most common response to stress. Or at least it is the most understood and widely accepted response. But, as Kelly McGonigal (PhD, health psychologist, and lecturer in Stanford University) proves, we as human beings have a much richer repertoire of stress responses that just this one.
McGonigal instead gives two types of stress mindset. Take a look at them and consider which set of statements you agree with more strongly:
Mindset 1: Stress is harmful
- Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality
- Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity
- Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth
- The effects of stress inhibit my learning and growth
- The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided
Mindset 2: Stress in enhancing
- Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity
- Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality
- Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth
- The effects of stress are positive and should be utilised
 “The upside of stress. Why stress is good for you and how o get good at it”. Kelly McGonigal, PhD, New York 2016, p. 14
As you can imagine, Mindset 1 is much more common than Mindset 2. I certainly consider myself to be of Mindset 1. But on the other hand, Mindset 2 is very appealing. It gives me the chance to shift the inconvenient state I experience quite often to something more constructive and positive. Especially since McGonigal cites research that says that people who believe that stress can be helpful are more likely to accept the fact that the stressful situation occurred, plan a strategy to deal with, seek help, act to minimise the source of stress, and try to identify the lesson from a difficult experience. They are proactive.
Changing mindset is a lot easier said than done but it is possible. What you need is time, inner motivation and stressful experiences to practice. There is an interesting mindset intervention that McGonigal proposes to facilitate this change. Whenever you find yourself in difficult situation, try to follow these 3 steps:
- Simply allow yourself to notice the stress, how your body reacts, where you feel it. This step is important to build distance and focus on your reaction rather than on the source of the stress.
- Now welcome the stress by recognising that it is connected with something you care about. You usually do not stress about things of no importance to you. We get stressed about things like relationships, health, family, work, safety. Remember why it is so important to you. Stress very often is a sign that we have a meaningful life. In The Upside of Stress, you will find a lot of stories and research on how a meaningful life is intimately connected with experiencing stress.
- Make use of the energy stress gives you. Don’t waste it on managing the stress, but try to find a way to connect it to your values. Use this energy to shift your stress response to be more productive and further your goals. Here are two examples of how you might use your stress response productively:
 “The upside of stress. Why stress is good for you and how o get good at it”. Kelly McGonigal, PhD, New York 2016, p. 29
The fight or flight response is helpful when your life or health are in danger. When you experience something less threatening your body is able to respond in a more suitable way. Your heart rate still rises, your adrenaline spikes, you muscles and brain still get more fuel. But when you view these symptoms as resources, you can transform your physical stress response from threat to challenge. A racing heart will make you feel energised, excited, and ready to act. Your mind will be clear and focused. This kind of response helps you to rise, solve problems, face challenges, and go through changes. Just trust your body, don’t resist, you have everything to cope with the situation. The key is how you interpret your stress.
Tend and befriend response
For some people, it is very natural to get closer to others when under stress. They will look for help, attention, conversation or just simple closeness. Some of them will go even further and try to find the opportunity to care for others when they themselves are stressed out. This kind of response has a significant and positive impact on your body as it will start to produce three amazing hormones:
- Oxytocin – you will feel more trust and less fear
- Dopamine – you will get motivated and convinced that you are able to do something meaningful
- Serotonin – helps you to define your need, to connect with yourself, your deeper voice, your intuition
In conclusion, I will share with you a story of my own from just yesterday. I was about to have a very difficult meeting. Even just the thought of leaving the house to make my way there was panicking me. My mind was full of terrible scenarios, mainly about how I would fail. I wanted to fight or flee. And this was totally ironic as I was in the middle of writing this blog! That’s why I decided to make a mindset intervention. What I did was:
- I connected my stress with one of my core values – love. I answered the question: Why am I going to this meeting? The answer was simple: I am doing it for my son. He asked me to. And I love him immensely.
- I remembered how natural and fun I can be with people. I remembered this feeling and evoked it in myself. And it stayed with me.
- At the meeting, I was close to my family, I was taking care of my son.
- All the time, I was listening to what my intuition was telling me. After an hour, I decided to leave the meeting, the hosts protested but I just knew that it was enough for me and left. With complete peace of mind and heart.
I think the key to this positive experience was to relate it to my values and completely trust my body and intuition. I changed my stress response and I changed my stress mindset.
I am going to end this blog with maybe a bit of a controversial message to you:
I do not wish you little stress anymore, I wish you stress, which will be enhancing.
 “The upside of stress. Why stress is good for you and how o get good at it”. Kelly McGonigal, PhD, New York 2016, p. 138