3 Ways to Make the Most of Stress

An interview with Kelly McGonigal.

Posted Sep 06, 2019

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Have you been wishing you felt less stressed at work lately? With looming deadlines, demanding bosses, and devices that are hard to switch off, it’s easy to understand why the World Health Organization has recently declared “burn-out” a workplace phenomenon. But are our levels of stress really the problem?

“Most of us see stress as a threatening or overwhelming experience that we need to manage out of our lives,” explained Dr. Kelly McGonigal from Stanford University when I interviewed her recently. “However, stress is evolution's biological mechanism to help us engage with, and adapt to life. It can force you to clarify your values and priorities, and help you rise to a challenge. It is necessary for learning and growing, and it can often be a catalyst for strengthening and increasing social connections.”

How? Stress is what happens in your body and brain — to your thoughts and emotions — when something that you care about is at stake. Studies have found that when you understand that your body’s stress responses are designed to help you meet life with the energy and courage you need to deal with whatever is at stake, stress can have many positive outcomes for you.

For example, your: 

  • Fight or flight response – gets triggered when you believe stress signals that something harmful is about to happen to you and creates a surge of cortisol and motivation that primes you for self-defense and makes you vigilant for signs that things are going poorly. And while this can be great in short bursts, it can also create a vicious cycle where your heightened attention to what’s going wrong, fills you with self-doubt and leaves you with more cortisol, which can be associated with impaired immune function and depression
  • Challenge response – gets triggered when you believe stress is an opportunity for learning and growth. By embracing your anxiety, you’re able to harness the powerful mix of endorphins, adrenaline, testosterone, and dopamine that can come with any stress response, which can help to improve your performance in the face of a challenge.
  • Bigger-than-self response – gets triggered when you recognize that the stress you’re facing is bigger than what you can handle by yourself, that you're not the only one struggling with this situation, and that you have someone you can trust. The anti-stress hormone, oxytocin, magnifies trust and emotional intelligence and this gives you hope and the courage to reach out to others.
  • Resilience response – gets triggered when, rather than seeing the replays in your mind of stress as evidence that you’re a failure, you think of it as helping you learn, and ultimately making you stronger and more resilient. It leaves you with higher levels of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a neurosteroid, which helps you recover and learn from stress, and has been linked to a reduced risk of anxiety, depression, and other diseases thought to be stress-related.

So, what can you try to harness your body’s different stress responses?

Kelly suggests:

  • Resetting your stress mindset – when you notice feelings and physical symptoms of stress – stomach-churning, or heart beating faster – rather than telling yourself that this is a sign that you can’t handle things, or reaching for something that numbs the sensations, remind yourself it’s because something matters to you and this is your body rising to the challenge. When you see your body's response as a sign that you care, you can become less obsessed with trying to control those symptoms, and more focused on who, and what, you care about. Often, that can be enough to give you the courage to continue to approach the things that matter, and over time, build your stress confidence.
  • Choosing your stress response – recognize your different stress responses and try to expand your repertoire by taking a moment to ask yourself what would be most useful in this situation? Do you need to flight, fight, freeze, or rise to the challenge and harness the energy of stress to fuel your purpose? Do you need to figure out how you can learn and grow? Or if the situation is more than you can handle on your own and you need to tap into your bravery and tell someone what’s going on or offer to help others in similar situations? By bringing your attention to the stress response you want, your body and brain can help you meet life, as it is now, with the resources available to you.
  • Practicing gratitude – regularly reflect on the people who contribute to the quality of your life and your ability to do what matters. Gratitude allows stress to bring out the desire to connect, to help others, and to look for those who might be able to help you. It brings out hope and courage and creates a mindset of interdependence that can help make a social stress response – one of the healthiest and, often, most relevant responses to the kind of stress that you will face on an everyday basis – your default response.