The Upside of Stress suggests that not only does adversity make us stronger, but it also provides evidence to support the fact that embracing stress can actually have a positive impact on our mental and physical health. In addition, the book explores how our mindset determines the impact that stress will have on us.

The author, Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist at Stanford University. She is widely known for her work in ‘science help’ which combines insights from psychology, neuroscience, medicine, and biology to provide strategies that support overall health and well-being.

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Book Summary

“THE UPSIDE OF STRESS” in 7 Sentences:

1. “If you have butterflies in your stomach, invite them into your heart.”

2. “The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.”

3. When you view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.

4. “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.”

5. In the midst of stress, ask yourself: “What action can I take, or what choice can I make, that is consistent with my goal in this moment?”

6. If you avoid stressful situations: “you may have spared yourself some discomfort, but you will also have robbed yourself of some meaning.”

7. Chasing meaning in your life is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort.

8 INSIGHTS from the book The Upside of Stress

INSIGHT #1 How You Perceive Stress Will Determine How Stress Will Impact You

“In 1998, thirty thousand adults in the United States were asked how much stress they had experienced in the past year. They were also asked: Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?

 Eight years later, the researchers scoured public records to find out who among the thirty thousand participants had died. Let me deliver the bad news first. 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.”  [p9; Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress]

INSIGHT #2 The Stress Mindset

 “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.” [p27; Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress]

What is your ‘stress mindset?’

To help you answer this question, consider the statements below:

Mindset 1:
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 are negative and should be avoided.

Mindset 2:
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 utilized.

Do you relate with the statements under Mindset 1, or Mindset?

These brief statements are what psychologists call the ‘Stress Mindset Measure.’

After conducting this survey on a mass scale, results indicate that the majority of the participants agree with statements under Mindset 1, that is – they hold a negative view about stress. 

On the other hand, individuals who hold the view that stress is enhancing (those who relate with the statements in Mindset 2) McGonigal writes:

“…are more likely to view stressful situations as a challenge, not an overwhelming problem. They have greater confidence in their ability to cope with those challenges, and they are better able to find meaning in difficult circumstances.” [p28; Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress]

INSIGHT #3 The Stress Paradox

 In 2005, a study was conducted in 121 countries which comprised of 125,000 participants, aged 15 or above. The participants were asked one question:

‘Did you feel a great deal of stress yesterday?’

 With the results, the researchers computed a national stress index which was simply the percentage of a country’s population who answered yes. The average was 33%, with index scores being the highest in the Philippines at 67% and the lowest in Mauritania at 5%.

Each nation’s stress index was compared to other variables such as the nations life expectancy and GDP. The most surprising find was the fact that the researchers identified a positive correlation between each nations’ stress index and its overall well being. Here’s a summary of the findings quoted from The Upside of Stress:

“To the researchers’ surprise, the higher a nation’s stress index, the higher the nation’s well-being. The higher the percentage of people who said they had felt a great deal of stress the day before, the higher that nation’s life expectancy and GDP. A higher stress index also predicted higher national scores on measures of happiness and satisfaction with life.

When it came to overall well-being, the happiest people in the poll weren’t the ones without stress. Instead, they were the people who were highly stressed but not depressed. These individuals were the most likely to view their lives as close to ideal.

In contrast, the researchers reported that among individuals who appeared to be the most unhappy, experiencing high levels of shame and anger and low levels of joy, ‘there was a notable lack of stress.’ ” [p65; Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress]

 This phenomenon, McGonigal labels ‘The Stress Paradox.’ That is, high levels of stress indicate higher levels of well-being. Furthermore, the study solidifies an important observation: a happy life is not a stress-free life, nor does a life devoid of stress guarantee happiness.

In order to better understand this observation, the author sheds light on the relationship between stress and meaning…

INSIGHT #4 A Stressful Life is a Meaningful Life.

Stress is often, a by-product of a purposeful life. The sources which give us the most stress, such as parenting, work, or cultivating relationships, are the very sources which also feed our sense of purpose.

McGonigal writes:

“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.”

 Many harbor the notion that they would be happier if there was less stress in their lives. However, research suggests the contrary: People are generally happier when they are busy and engaged with life, even when thrust with more responsibility than they would otherwise choose.

Moreover, even when the stress that we’re experiencing does not seem meaningful, it can trigger within us, the desire to find meaning as McGonigal clarifies:

“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. Stressful circumstances awaken this process in us.” [p67]

The lesson here is not to try eliminating or reducing the hassles of everyday life, but rather –to change the way we perceive those hassles and cultivating a mindset of meaning. An effective way to do this is by re-examining your values.

INSIGHT #5 ‘Remember the Values’

Being aligned with your core values is a potent way to add more meaning in your life. This involves deciding on the values which are most important to you and spending a brief period of time describing the significance of them as well as how you express these values in everyday life.

As McGonigal explains:

“…when you reflect on your values, the story you tell yourself about stress shifts. You see yourself as strong and able to grow from adversity. You become more likely to approach challenges than to avoid them. And you are better able to see the meaning in difficult circumstances.”

…It turns out that writing about your values is one of the most effective psychological interventions ever studied.” [p69; Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress]

INSIGHT #6 The Two Stress Responses

One of the more interesting findings outlined in the book The Upside of Stress is the fact that there are two different stress responses: a Challenge Response and a Threat Response.

 We are likely to experience the challenge response in situations which require us to perform under pressure –such as a sports competition or giving a public speech or sitting for an exam. In the midst of a challenge response, the body responds in a manner similar to the way it does when you exercise -maximizing blood flow for greater energy which in turn helps you to focus and take action.

On the other hand, the threat response is the activation of the fight-or-flight mechanism. This is the emergency instinct which gives stress its bad reputation. When you’re experiencing a threat response, your blood vessels constrict and you are more likely to experience negative emotions such as fear, anger, self-doubt, and shame.

 The important distinction between the two stress responses is that during a threat response – the body is anticipating physical harm.

As McGonigal clarifies:

“A threat response isn’t an overreaction of the stress response system—it’s an entirely different kind of stress response, one that primes you more for self-defense than for success.”[p95]

Furthermore, the challenge response reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and puts your body in a much healthier state compared to the threat response which has shown to accelerate aging and disease when chronic.

Researchers have studied both the stress responses in various situations and it’s been observed that the challenge response predicts better performance whilst under pressure.

INSIGHT #7 Harnessing The ‘Challenge Response’

“Psychologists found that the most important factor in determining your response to pressure is how you think about your ability to handle it.

 When faced with any stressful situation, you begin to evaluate both the situation and your resources. How hard is this going to be? Do I have the skills, the strength, and the courage? Is there anyone who could help me? This evaluation of demands and resources may not be conscious, but it’s happening under the surface. As you weigh the demands of the situation against the resources you bring to it, you make a rapid assessment of your ability to cope.

 Lots of studies show that people are more likely to have a challenge response if they focus on their resources. Some of the most effective strategies for this are acknowledging your personal strengths; thinking about how you have prepared for a particular challenge; remembering times in the past when you overcame similar challenges; imagining the support of your loved ones; and praying, or knowing that others are praying for you. These are all quick mindset shifts that can turn a threat into a challenge.” [p98; Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress].

INSIGHT #8 Adversity Makes You Stronger

 A life devoid of adversity can do more harm than good. Psychologists have observed that individuals who have experienced minimal adversities in their lives tend to be the least resilient to it.

When we look back on the events in our lives which lead to significant personal growth, most will agree that those periods were also more stressful. This, McGonigal says –“is the paradox of stress on full display: Even if we would prefer to have less stress in our lives, it’s the difficult times that give rise to growth.”

In order to grow from stressful events, McGonigal points out that we need to believe that something positive will from that event itself. This involves deliberately focusing on the upside of an adverse situation.

One way to do this, as outlined in the book: is by trying a simple mindset intervention exercise called ‘benefit-finding.’

Benefit-finding involves focusing on a negative event in your past and then challenging the perspectives you hold about this event by writing about what you learned from the experience, how your life became better as a result, and how it has helped you become a better person.

As McGonigal concludes:

“Choosing to see the upside in our most painful experiences is part of how we can change our relationship with stress. Accepting past adversity is part of how we find the courage to grow from our present struggles. In many way ways, it is the attitude that allows us to embrace and transform stress.” [p173; Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress]

Get Your Copy of: “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It” here…

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