I am sorry, I owe you an apology. In my October 10th, 2018 piece I discussed the problems of stress. Thanks to ‘The Upside of Stress’ by Kelly McGonigal PhD my relationship with stress has changed profoundly to the point now that I consider I have a love affair with stress…yes, it’s true! I have shifted my mindset from ‘I can’t cope with this’ to ‘I have the skills, or will learn new ones to manage this’.
I humbly retract my hatred and fear of stress and zealously urge all readers to read this book and develop their own life-changing love affair. I have read nearly one hundred personal development/self-help books in the last five years in my slightly obsessive desire to distil as much helpful information to my family, friends, patients, and anyone else who will listen but this is my favourite!
I am a closet book highlighter and page corner turner (much to the disgust of my father) and this book is the only one that I have turned over and highlighted every page. This column is designed to highlight the key elements of Dr McGonigal’s book. I have also inserted key relevant references from the book that I believe will be of interest to HealthCentral readers. Please forgive me if I do not do this book justice.
An important part of the book challenges us to think of our signs of stress, e.g. a racing heart or sweaty palms as ‘signs that your body and brain are helping you cope’. As a mother, one of my favourite sections in the book is the one that describes research suggesting that it is not inevitable that stress during pregnancy is always a bad thing. In fact, babies exposed to their mothers’ stress hormones experienced ‘accelerated neurologic maturation’. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846092/)
On a physiological level, stress helps our brain develop resilience. This is from the stronger connections in parts of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain secondary to increased nerve growth factor and DHEA. Other benefits of stress can include increased courage, self-confidence, care-giving, and motivation; strengthened social relationships; and learning from the stressful experience. ‘Stress inoculation’, a term coined by psychologists to describe the idea that stress teaches us how to manage future stress, is a further benefit. Stress also ‘challenges us to find the meaning in our lives’.
Some of the more interesting research in the book is that trying to avoid stress can actually be harmful. It can lead to increasing work and personal life conflict; depression; negative life outcomes such as divorce; reduced energy; and concentration. Dr McGonigal makes a thought-provoking statement when she says ‘many of the negative outcomes we associate with stress may actually be the consequences of trying to avoid it’. An example of this would be engaging in excess alcohol consumption as an avoidance strategy.
When I read this book, I still thought I was destined for an early grave with my less than optimal work life balance (a work in progress!) but as Dr McGonigal says ‘the good news is that, even if you are firmly convinced that stress is harmful, you can still cultivate a mindset that helps you thrive.’ Mindset science gives us hope in that once a mindset sinks in it becomes a subconscious behaviour.
The key paragraph in the whole book for me is one that helps us adopt a more positive stress mindset by describing a three-step process. I have replicated this paragraph word for word to preserve its power. ‘The first step is to acknowledge stress when you experience it. Simply allow yourself to notice the stress, including how it affects your body. The second step is to welcome the stress by recognising that it’s a response to something you care about. Can you connect to the positive motivation behind the stress? What is at stake here, and why does it matter to you? The third step is to make use of the energy that stress gives you, instead of wasting that energy trying to manage your stress. What can you do right now that reflects your goals and values?’ (https://journals.aom.org/doi/abs/10.5465/ambpp.2011.65870502)
There are multiple exercises in this book to help the information sink in. My favourite is the one that asks us to write about a role, relationship, activity or goal that is causing us stress and to describe why it is important to us. An example for me personally would be the stress of having enough time for my family. This goal is important because I love my family intensely and this exercise highlights these emotions, and it reminds me that the reason I work is to provide for my family. It also helps encourage me to develop skills (in this case efficiency) to manage the stress by creating a triaging system for my email inbox.
This piece, like Dr McGonigal’s book, is not designed to sugar coat, deny or attempt to reduce our feelings of stress but to develop a healthier relationship (if not a love affair) with stress when these feelings occur. The main ‘upside’ for me is reminding myself of stress’s ability to teach me to not only draw on my strengths but also to develop new ones. I’ll let Dr McGonigal have the last word on stress- ‘fear it less…trust yourself to handle it, and use it as a resource for engaging with life’.