Stress – Good or Bad?

“Stress! Huh!
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothin’!”
(with apologies to Strong/Whitfield)

“Or is it?”
Kelly McGonigal

I’ve been reading Kelly McGonigal’s paradigm-shifting book “The Upside of Stress” with a great deal of personal interest. For the last two years, I’ve been dealing with one very stressful situation after another. The move from Minnesota to Bellingham. A divorce. A return to dating (for a closet introvert like myself, that is stressful). Intense therapy. And on top of all that, I’ve read all the dire warnings about the effects of long-term, chronic stress on health and longevity.

The classic double whammy. Stress, and stressing about stress. Very depressing.

Not so fast, says McGonigal. Too much of the research on stress has been based on a huge false assumption – that there’s only one stress response, the infamous “fight or flight.”  Turns out the human physio-neuro-hormonal complex is, well, more complex than that. In fact, there are a variety of stress responses, and they can all be good.

For example: There was a period in my life when I believed I thrived on stress: minor crises at work, tight deadlines, major exams – I always felt I was at my best in the clutch. With good reason, says McGonigal. One of the beneficial stress responses is the “Challenge Response.” It fires up the brain and body, provides a motivation boost from a nice cocktail of endorphins, adrenaline and dopamine, and gets you in the flow.

Unbeknownst to me, the key was that I believed that I thrived on stress, and this mindset allowed me to take advantage of the benefits of the stress response. So the key to stress management isn’t reducing stress. Quite the opposite – embrace stress with a positive mindset and let it work for you.

And the best tool for opening yourself up to embracing stress? Mindfulness. When you feel the stress energies building up, instead of trying to calm them down, just be present with them. Unless there’s saber-toothed tiger right in front of you, chances are that this stress energy and be harnessed to help you deal with the situation. Being mindful gives you the space to make that conscious choice.

And in study after study, people who were coached in this technique performed much better in stressful situations (big tests, public speaking) than those who weren’t.

Furthermore, McGonical sites research studies showing a strong connection between generally higher stress levels in peoples’ lives and their happiness and sense of purpose. The connection seems to grow out of their ability to see the many day-to-day stressors in their lives (juggling schedules, social media, cooking, household chores) less as obstacles outside of their control and more as necessary ingredients for the lives they are building for themselves. On a deeper level, performing those tasks, while stressful on the micro level, on a higher level were expressions of their own values. Says McGonigal: “The takeaway should be to change your relationship to the everyday experiences you perceive as hassles.”  Mindfulness anyone?

Before I started reading The Upside of Stress, I had been struck by the fact that, despite my long list of stressors, the last two years have also been among the happiest of my life. Now I know why.

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