Summary of The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal

The lives we live today are filled with stress. There is an almost impossible pace that we have to keep to just stay ahead. Whether it comes from work, college, family or even your morning commute to work, stress is inevitable. So, how should we deal with it? Honestly, everyone has their own way of dealing with stress. 

However, most of the time, it usually involves finding ways to eliminate stress because it is a negative force. But what if there were another way to deal with it? Well, there is. Over time, our bodies have actually adapted to deal with stress on their own and once you are aware of this, you can use it to your advantage.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • Stress is not always dangerous
  • Different types of stress responses
  • How embracing your anxieties can help
  • How stress makes you resilient

Key lesson one: Stress is not always dangerous

According to a Gallup World Poll conducted in the early 2000s, an average of around one-third of a country’s population said they experienced stress. The Philippines were on the top of this list with 67 per cent and Mauritania was at the bottom with 5 per cent. But what was truly interesting is that countries that had higher stress levels also had higher GDP, longer life expectancy and better quality of living. In contrast, countries with low levels had high levels of violence, poverty and hunger. This falls under the stress paradox. Stress levels are not always dangerous. 

There have been numerous studies over the years that have proven that stress is bad for your mental and physical health. It can cause illness and affect the way that you handle situations in your day to day life. In fact, one study actually showed that high levels of stress could increase the risk of death by 43 per cent. But, there was one crucial factor – this percentage was only applicable to people who believed that stress was harmful. So, what does this mean? Well, the people who did not believe in stress being harmful actually had the lowest risk of death. This was despite them experiencing high levels of stress. This means that stress is indeed harmful but only if you believe it to be.

The fact is, positivity is a powerful force. If you have a positive mindset, the influence it can have on your mind and body can be remarkable. A research study at Yale University, for example, reported that people who had a positive view about ageing lived 7.6 years longer. These positive mindsets are developed based on people’s own understanding of their surroundings and life thus far. They are powerful enough to affect the way you feel, think and act. 

Therefore, your attitude toward stress and your belief whether it is armful or not influences your mindset. This will affect the choices you make in your daily life. People who have a positive view of stress tend to come up with better strategies to deal with it instead of just avoiding it at all costs. These strategies allow you to make the best out of every situation and enable you to be more confident about the challenges that stress can sometimes present. It is not easy to achieve this if you are someone who tries to avoid stress altogether or who does not like the thought of embracing it. However, it’s just a matter of changing your mindset, that with practice, can begin to feel natural. 

Just consider all the people you know who see to handle stress well. It all boils down to how they think about stress. They usually accept it as a normal part of life. This is exactly what they talk about when they say life is filled with ups and downs. Without stress or adversity, there would be fewer chances for us to learn and evolve. If you accept stress as a normal part of life, you are less likely to be put off by new challenges because you know for a fact that this too, shall pass. This is resilience and a growth mindset and you can only achieve it if you have dealt with stressful situations before. So don’t try to avoid stress, accept it in order to learn and grow.

Key lesson two: Different types of stress responses

The way we react to stress is one of the first things to understand for us to realize the potential it holds. For example, an experiment was carried out on people who survived car accidents to predict who would develop post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Researchers analyzed the levels of stress hormones present in the survivor’s urine samples which were collected immediately after the accident. There were a total of 55 people in the study and 46 of them had higher levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These 46 patients did not suffer from PTSD. The nine remaining patients who had lower levels of these hormones did develop PTSD. This experiment was important because provided evidence that stress has the ability to influence long-term recovery in people who have experienced traumatic events. 

Stress, therefore, provides more than a flight-or-fight response. If we use this knowledge, we can try to adapt another response to stress that will allow us to be more positive about the eventual outcome. An example would be the challenge-response. This response can be used in situations that will not have an impact on your survival and release stress hormones that actually allow you to feel self-confident and motivated to learn from a challenging situation. 

Another example of a positive stress response is called the tend-and-befriend response. This is when you feel stressed and talk to someone close to you about it. This action causes your body to release oxytocin and also inhibits the fear centres in your brain.  In turn, this encourages you to feel more empathy and trust allowing you to further connect with people.  At the same time, dopamine is released and activates the reward centre in your brain. This makes you feel more confident and motivated further decreasing any fear that may exist about your situation. In addition, all these reactions also release serotonin that switches on the attunement system in the brain. This system makes it easier to understand what actions need to be taken in order to get the best possible outcome. The best part of the tend-and-befriend response is that it also gets activated when you help others.   

As well as helping you deal with the stress at that time, these positive responses to stress also leave an imprint on your brain. This means that the next time you experience stress, you will remember how you responded to it previously and will be able to cope better.

Key lesson three: How embracing your anxieties can help

Anxiety can be crippling. Unfortunately, stress and anxiety are usually found together and their combined effect can be catastrophic if we allow it to be. When this happens, our self-confidence usually takes a knock and the next time we are in a similar situation we remember this negative experience. 

However, if we learn to embrace our anxieties, we could actually channel them to perform better. A simple experiment which was carried out by a Harvard Business School professor involved asking her students to repeat a mantra before they went out to give a presentation. She told half of them to say ‘I am calm’ and the other half to say ‘I am excited’. This simple exercise showed that those that said ‘I am excited’ had a better presentation and felt better overall when compared to the others. Their anxiety was channelled into energy which aided their presentation.

Embracing your anxiety and learning to channel it towards a positive response is an important step in changing your mindset. In fact, it is the foundation to do so because anxiety leads to avoidance and if we avoid everything that gives us anxiety, we don’t live.

Key lesson four: How stress makes you resilient

If you really think about it, every time you have experienced a positive change in your life has usually been preceded by a stressful time. This is referred to as the paradox of stress and has been known for centuries. Where do you think the saying that what doesn’t kill you make you stronger comes from? 

A study demonstrated that a whopping 82 per cent of people cite their previous stressful experiences as the source of their strength. This is probably why how we deal with stress is such a popular interview question. Avoiding stressful situations and leading a therefore sheltered life is more harmful than helpful in the long run. If adversity is unknown to us, we are more likely to be less resilient.

Therefore you have to keep in mind that the way you handle adversity and stressful situations will shape how you react to future challenges. 

The key takeaway from The Upside of Stress is:

Stress is only harmful to our mental and physical health if we believe that it is harmful. That is how powerful our minds truly are. If we instead embrace stress positively as an opportunity to learn and grow we will be able to handle it better. In addition, these positive experiences with stress also help with the way we deal with it in future and the way we help others as well. Stress is not bad, we just handle it badly and then look for ways to avoid the negative experiences from happening again. By changing this mindset, we are one step closer to using stress to our personal advantage.

How can I implement the lesson learned in The Upside of Stress:

If you find yourself in a stressful situation, instead of panicking, try thinking about what conquering this challenge would bring. How would it benefit you? This will help you see the bigger picture. If you cannot see past the stress, trying talking to someone you are close to about it. This will not only make you feel better but see the solution to your problem as well.

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