Summer Reading List: The Upside of Stress

Detective novels not really your thing? How's this for a summer beach read: Stanford psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal's new book, The Upside of Stress

We'd been meaning to give it a read for several months now. Because, you see, we’re in it. (Yes, after years of witnessing the late night work sessions, hand-wringing, and coffee binges of start-up nonprofit life, our roommates think it’s pretty hilarious that we’re case studies for stress and its upside.) 

Stress has gotten a bad rap. Hating on it is a recipe for instant internet clickbait, whether in the form of Five Tips on How to Reduce Stress or news that it can kill you

As a health psychologist, McGonigal used to teach students about the toxicity of stress, believing that by naming its dangers, she could convince people to reduce it, and thus live longer, happier lives. Because many of the biggest sources of stress in our lives are unavoidable, however, she found her students weren’t getting less stressed out. They were simply feeling shitty about it. 

Then she came across a study that linked negative health outcomes not to stress itself, but to stress and the belief that stress was harmful. She wondered: By harping on about the dangers of stress, were we creating a self-fulfilling prophecy? 

The answer, as she uncovers in her book, is: Yes. Rather than focus on reducing stress in our lives, we need to rethink our relationship to it.  

That starts with our definition: McGonigal defines stress simply as “what arises when something you care about is at stake.” It encompasses our reactions to a deadline, or to public speaking, or to running late for a date, as well as the experience of caregiving, or of losing someone we love. Because we only stress about the things we care about, “stress and meaning are inextricably linked,” she says. 

Consider the words “stress response” and most of us immediately think of "fight or flight": racing heart, quickened breathing, and a surge of adrenaline--a vestige of our Cro-Magnon ancestry, that once upon a time allowed us to escape from a rampaging mastodon. 

But in reality, says McGonigal, "fight or flight" is only one of several stress responses we as humans are wired for (and even that one serves a modern purpose). Ever wonder why, in a crisis, you feel the need to do something? Turns out the answer isn't just about love, but biology, and what scientists call a "tend-and-befriend response". Our bodies release a surge of oxytocin, which reduces our brain's fear response and motivates us to protect the people and communities we care about. 

With us so far? Now things are about to get trippy. McGonigal draws on the science of mindsets, and the growing body of evidence that changing how we think about something can improve our health, happiness, and success--permanently. She cites studies that show that when our perceptions change, our bodies’ responses change. “Viewing stress as helpful created a different biological reality” (10). Read that again. Woah, right? 

The book is well worth the read, and no, we're not just saying that because we're in it. So grab ye old beach umbrella, postpone your Wet Hot American Summer binge for another day, and prepare for some serious mindset-shifting.

A few key takeaways to whet your appetite: 

1. We're better together. One of the biggest sources of resilience has to do with what psychologists (and, um, non-psychologists, too) call “common humanity”: the degree to which you see your struggles as part of the human experience. The truth is that everyone has a story, whether it’s of losing someone they love, or watching someone they love go through it. By keeping our stories private, we inadvertently ask others to do the same. We assume that others’ lives are exactly as they appear on Instagram, filters and all. "To feel less lonely in your stress, two things help: the first is to increase your awareness of other people's suffering. The second is to be more open about yours" (167). 

2. Both and. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, the phoenix and the ashes, wildflowers in cracked sidewalks: The idea that trauma and resilience are linked is now the stuff of Pinterest boards and Hallmark cards, those great modern canons of cliches. We're pretty big fans of the good life, but still, it's an idea that makes us wary: signs of our thirst for happy endings and our inability to sit with suffering, masquerading as an insistence to look on the bright side of life. 

In unpacking the science of post-traumatic growth, McGonigal addresses that concern head-on: "The science of post-traumatic growth doesn't say that there is anything inherently good about suffering," she says. "Nor does it say that every traumatic event leads to growth. When any good comes from suffering, the source of that growth resides in you -- your strengths, your values, and how you choose to respond to adversity. It does not belong to the trauma" (201). 

It's not that suffering is inherently ennobling. What's more, studies have shown that the ability to name both good and bad is associated with better outcomes than focusing exclusively on the upside. She cites studies that show that the "severity of post-traumatic distress positively predicts the degree of post-dramatic growth" (199).  Here again, our mindset matters: "seeing the upside of adversity changes the way we cope" (203). And did we mention the chapter features LA Dinner Partier Jennifer White, creator of Hope After Project, to illustrate the point? Get it, girl. 

3. Tend-and-befriend. It would make sense that, when under fire, our instinct would be to self-protect: to guard our resources, to pay attention to our own needs first. Not so. Our tend-and-befriend response activates three systems of our brains: The oxytocin-fueled “social caregiving system,” which leads to increased empathy, connection, and trust, and a desire for connection; the “reward system,” which releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, and increases our sense of optimism and confidence in our ability to do something meaningful; and the “attunement system,” driven by serotonin, which increases our perceptiveness, so that we can better understand what’s needed and act accordingly. 

“When we care for others, it changes our biochemistry, activating systems of the brain that produce feelings of hope and courage,” writes McGonigal. “Helping others also protects against the harmful effects of even chronic or traumatic stress” (137). 

That can come at a cost, of course: We prefer to be the helper than the helped, so it can be hard to ask for what we need. But when you see a friend who’s just lost someone he loves, and he goes immediately into “action mode,” don’t immediately pin it on denial or avoidance: This is what coping looks like, too. 

Can't find what you need? Create it. "One of the most helpful mindset shifts you can make is to view yourself as the source of whatever support you want to experience," writes McGonigal, describing The Dinner Party. We'll cheers to that.