“The Upside of Stress (2015)” explains that it is our mindset that determines the impact that stress will have on us. In the book, the author provides evidence to suggest that embracing stress can actually have a positive impact on our mental and physical health.

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.

The Upside of Stress Summary

Key Takeaways…

  • “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.”

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

  • “When you view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.”

Kelly McGonigal “The Upside of Stress” Summary


1. How You Perceive Stress Will Determine Its Impact

McGonigal writes: “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.”  


2. The Stress Mindset

McGonigal highlights the importance of the stress mindset and tells us that it “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.” 

To determine your own stress mindset, consider the statements below. They make up what psychologists call the ‘Stress Mindset Measure.’ Do you relate with the statements under Mindset 1, or Mindset 2?

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.

McGonigal tells us that after conducting this survey on a mass scale, results indicate that the majority of the participants agree with statements under Mindset 1. This means that they hold a negative perception of stress. 

On the other hand, regarding individuals who hold the view that stress is enhancing (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.” 


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 then compared to other variables such as the nation’s life expectancy and GDP. The most surprising find was that the researchers identified a positive correlation between each nation’s stress index and its overall well being.

McGonigal summarizes: “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.

This phenomenon is what the author labels as ‘The Stress Paradox.’

She clarifies: “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.”


4. A Stressful Life is a Meaningful Life

McGonigal writes that “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 may be experiencing does not seem meaningful, it can trigger within us, the desire to find meaning. As the author, Kelly McGonigal clarifies:

“Human beings have an innate instinct and capacity to make sense 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.” 

The lesson here is not to try eliminating or reducing the hassles of everyday life, but rather, to change the way that you perceive those hassles and by cultivating a mindset of meaning. 

An effective way to do this is by examining your values.


5. ‘Remember the Values’

Being aligned with your core values is an effective way to add more meaning to your life. This involves deciding on the values which are most important to you and then describing the significance of them as well as how you would express these values in everyday life.

With regards to stress, 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.” 


6. Challenge Response Vs Stress Response

One of the more interesting findings outlined in “The Upside of Stress” is regarding the two stress responses which are labeled as the ‘Challenge Response’ and the ‘Threat Response.’

McGonigal tells us that we are likely to experience the challenge response in situations that require us to perform under pressure. Examples may include 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, by 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.

McGonigal adds: “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.”

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.”


7. Harnessing the Challenge Response

McGonigal writes: “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.” 


8. Adversity Makes You Stronger

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

In order to grow from stressful events, McGonigal points out that we need to believe that something positive will arise 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 attempting 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.

Furthermore, examining our attitudes is critical. 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.”

kelly mcgonigal the upside of stress summary


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