There's nothing worse than being totally stressed out. Chances are you're continually asking yourself, "How can I be less stressed?" Feeling completely overwhelmed and incapable of doing anything about it is absolutely panic inducing — it's like that nightmare where you're trying to run from the serial killer but your feet won't move.
There are countless strategies on how to relieve stress, lest your hectic, over-scheduled life give you heart disease, insomnia, or the full-on crazies. So the burning question is, why does stress exist? If stress is inevitable and unavoidable, is it possible there's an upside?
Enter Stanford psychologist and Ph.D. Kelly McGonigal. In her new book The Upside of Stress , she reveals that the key to unlocking the benefits of stress is changing how you look at it. She set out to write about stress from a whole new perspective, and what she discovers through cutting-edge research and scientific study is literally life-changing. Stress can actually — get ready for it — make you happier, healthier, and better able to reach your goals.
The best part is that McGonigal provides concrete examples of exactly why learning to see stress as a positive can change your life for the better. An insanely busy schedule with impossible-to-accomplish goals is never going to lead to happiness, but learning how to change your mindset about stress can.
Rather than trying to escape it, embrace it, and reap the following life-changing benefits.
You'll Find the Strength to Pursue Your Goals
If you're willing to do just about anything to avoid being stressed out, there's a good chance you're missing out on opportunities to achieve your goals. Looking at stress as a necessary part of enhancing your life, whether that's going for a job promotion, deciding to have a child, or choosing to go to grad school, will help you succeed. It's all about changing your mindset to view stress as a vital, not necessarily negative, part of the process. As McGonigal writes, "The most meaningful challenges in your life will come with a few dark nights."
You'll Grow As a Person
Looking back, you'll probably find that the times in your life when you experienced the most personal growth were also the most stressful. Important events are also stressful events — graduating, going through a breakup, moving to a new city, or switching careers. The trick to getting the most out of these monumental life events is to look at them as a chance to grow, to potentially become a more open-minded, mature person. McGonigal explains that "One of the effects of the biological stress response is to make you more open to your experience." It's important for people to stay open to what they feel during stressful times, rather than trying to distract themselves or eliminate the stress. This'll help you become a more sensitive, empathetic person.
You'll Learn How to Thrive In Difficult Situations
Nobody likes to be in an awkward situation, but chances are you're going to experience your fair share of unpleasant moments. According to McGonigal, people who learn to change their mindsets about stress by viewing it positively deal with these situations with much more grace... and much less angst. Several other traits stand out about people who thrive under stress, but the one that stuck out came from a study by a University of Chicago psychologist who found that these people "believed that no matter what the circumstances, they must continue making choices — ones that could change the situation, or, if that wasn't possible, that could change how the situation affected them." When you believe that you can control your reactions even if you can't change certain difficult circumstances, you're using stress effectively.
You'll Be Able to Transform a Threat Into a Challenge
The key to making sure your response to stress is helpful rather than catastrophic is being confident in your ability to handle the stressful situation. McGonigal cites a study done at University of Rochester conducted using the Trier Social Stress Test, during which participants were put under heavy pressure while giving a speech. Researchers gave some participants a "mindset suggestion" to help them view their stress response as a positive. He simply said "When you feel anxious or stressed, think about how your stress response can actually be helpful." As McGonigal states, this group of participants "flat-out gave better speeches." This may seem too simple and good to be true, but resetting your perspective on stress really can make a huge difference — it just takes focus and commitment. The next time you have a work presentation or deadline, try seeing it as a challenge, and use your stress to give you energy and focus.
You'll Have More Emotional Support
I know this one sounds a little weird, but it's absolutely fascinating. Mostly because women totally win at this. McGonigal describes a study inspired by a conversation postdoctoral researcher Laura Cousino Klein had with a colleague about how female scientists in the lab responded to stress completely differently than the men. The men would isolate themselves in their offices, but the women would bring cookies and coffee and discuss their problems as a group, "Forget fight-or-flight, they joked," writes McGonigal. "The women were tending and befriending."
This may sound a little condescending, but the subsequent study found that stress can increase caring, cooperation, and compassion. Women in particular show an increase in tending when they're stressed out. This, in turn, strengthens their social ties and gives them a source of emotional support. So the big question is, how do you react to a stressful situation with tending-and-befriending rather than getting angry and defensive? The main thing is to focus on "bigger-than-self goals," supporting your friends, family, and colleagues, and seeing stress as part of the common human experience. "When we care for others, it changes our biochemistry, activating systems of the brain that produce feelings of hope and courage," McGonigal explains.
You'll Be a Stronger Person
You know that saying "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger?" According to McGonigal, recent scientific research has found that it's actually true. Even in your darkest days, when you're dealing with illness, pain, or loss, if you can believe that something good will come out of the experience, you will emerge a stronger person. Every single person will experience setback and failure, but perceiving these stressful life events as catalysts for growth will not only help you through an immediate difficult situation — it will make you well-equipped to handle the inevitable future ones.
McGonigal almost quit grad school. She made an error merging data sources that negated two months worth of subsequent work. After this discovery, she was convinced she wasn't cut out for a Ph.D. She seriously considered just quitting the program and disappearing, but ended up coming clean to her advisor about what she had inadvertently done. Instead of punishing her, or making her feel stupid, her advisor told her about a similar mistake he had made early in his career. He helped her fix the file, and the rest of her lab mates all came together to help her complete the project. What McGonigal is trying to show with this anecdote is that it's OK to make mistakes, it's OK to ask for help, and judging from her career, early failure does not mark you as a loser. She didn't let a single setback get her down, and she emerged from the experience stronger and more resilient.
...And Eventually You'll View Stress As a Resource
Shifting your perspective on stress probably isn't going to happen overnight. Eventually it will get easier, though, because you'll realize that it helps you be a happier, healthier person. As McGonigal writes frequently the things that stress you out the most — family, relationships, work —are also the most important things in your life. It's the stance you take on stress that matters. If you embrace stress, those negative things associated with it, like feeling inadequate, isolated, and trapped, will be replaced by positive feelings like confidence, courage, and belief in yourself. In this way stress can become a resource for you, allowing you to embody the values you hold most important and to find meaning in the things that used to make you a basket case. "For every harmful [stress] outcome you can think of, there's an exception that erases the expected association between stress and something bad — and often replaces it with an unexpected benefit," McGonigal writes.
Stress is always going to be a part of your life. Choosing to embrace and accept it rather than trying to eliminate it can ultimately make you happier, healthier, more likely to succeed and just an all-around better person. At the very least, working on shifting your attitude toward stress is definitely worth a try.