Stanford researcher Kelly McGonigal has made it her mission to show people how to embrace stressful situations as opportunities for growth.
In her wildly popular TED talk, Stanford researcher and best-selling author Kelly McGonigal, PhD, challenged her audience to evaluate their personal stress levels. “In the past year, I want you to raise your hand if you’ve experienced relatively little stress,” she said. A few hands shot up. “How about a moderate amount of stress?” More hands. “Who’s experienced a lot of stress?” A wall of hands appeared.
You’re probably not surprised at the response. Most of us believe we’re burdened by too much stress. You might be surprised, though, to find that McGonigal doesn’t share that view. She’s changed her mind about stress and wants to change your mind, too.
Her latest book, The Upside of Stress, uses cutting-edge research on the correlation between resilience (the human capacity for stress-related growth) and mindset (the power of beliefs to shape our realities) to challenge how we think about stress — and how we experience it.
“People look at their relationship to stress a lot like they look at their relationship to their body,” she explains. “They think, It’s my fault that it’s this way, and there’s nothing I can really do about it.”
What McGonigal calls “the stress-reduction industry” operates a lot like the diet industry, “which sows seeds of dissatisfaction and offers a lot of quick fixes, but doesn’t always empower people to create sustainable change in their well-being.” It focuses on “telling people that they won’t be happy until they ‘fix’ their stress rather than focusing on how creating meaning, purpose, and connection can change someone’s relationship to that stress.”
McGonigal has devoted much of her career to studying compassion and helping people cultivate it in their own lives. She says the years she’s spent working with people suffering from a range of issues — including things like combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder and the death of a child — have made clear the importance of acknowledging that stress can lead to personal growth, social connection, and greater purpose in life.
“When you actually spend time with people experiencing adversity or going through extremely stressful circumstances, you begin to see that it’s demoralizing to focus only on the harmful impact of stress rather than the meaning of stress,” she says. “It does a disservice.”
Q & A
Experience Life | What’s a stress mindset and where did that concept come from?
Kelly McGonigal | Psychologist Alia Crum and her colleagues at Yale University developed the Stress Mindset Measure to assess people’s views of stress. Crum, who is now doing research at Stanford, studies whether how you think about something can transform its effect on you.
A stress mindset is the way you think about stress and how you relate to it. It’s not just about whether you think stress is good or bad, but about what you think it means when you’re stressed out.
Your stress mindset is the filter through which you analyze stressful experiences. For example, you might have a mindset that says, “Life isn’t supposed to be stressful.” Or you may think that if you’re stressed, it means something is wrong with you or your life. That makes stress feel even more stressful, and more damaging.
Research shows that shifting the way you think about stress can have a big impact on your health and happiness.
To shift your stress mindset in a more positive direction, you have to first understand what you currently believe about stress, and then consciously explore a more empowered set of beliefs.
For instance, if you currently have the belief that stress means “I’m failing,” you might try shifting that to “I care.”
One mindset convinces you that you should do something to escape the feelings, while the other encourages you to do or choose something in support of what you care about. That simple redefinition can create a more positive, less damaging stress experience.
The next thing to evaluate is whether you believe you have the ability to handle stress or you think it’s inherently uncomfortable and damaging. Again, this is a set of beliefs you can challenge and shift.
A final key aspect of your stress mindset is whether you think stress is isolating or a basic human experience. This might be the difference between thinking, “I’m the only one (mom, manager, etc.) dealing with this level of stress — no one understands what I’m going through” versus “Stress is part of being human (or being a parent, boss, etc.); there are countless other people who know what this feels like.”
EL | What’s the connection between stress and resilience?
KM | Resilience is having the courage to grow from stress. I borrowed this idea from Dr. Salvatore Maddi, who studied the attitudes and coping strategies that help people thrive under high levels of stress.
My personal definition of resilience is that you not only have the courage to grow from stress, but also that you play an active role in deciding how stress changes you. If you know what your values are, you can transform your experience of stress. Instead of asking, “Why is this happening to me?” you can ask, “What now?” and “What for?” and “What next?”
Being resilient means that you give yourself permission to acknowledge that you are going to be changed by stress, adversity, and struggle — but not necessarily only for the worse.
This is different from the mindsets of “I’m always happy” and “I’m like Teflon, and nothing sticks to me.” Being armored against life isn’t ideal to me, because it doesn’t -empower you to grow.
EL | Your book is full of great exercises for helping us “get good at stress.” What’s one that anyone can do?
KM | There’s one practice I do in all of my classes. I give students a list of 50 words — like accountability, hard work, helping others, and joy — and ask them to rank two or three that feel most important to them. Then they write about one of their top values for 10 minutes. But you can also ask yourself these questions:
- What’s most important to you in your life? People will often answer “family” or “friends.”
- What do you value about yourself that you bring to difficult situations? These are strengths people have in service of things they care about. Many people answer “a sense of humor,” “kindness,” or “honesty.”
- What’s a meaningful activity you’re involved in? These are roles in life that bring you value and meaning — like teaching or animal rescue.
The main exercise is to reflect on and write about why these things are important to you and how they can change how you relate to the stress in your life.
The hope is that once you understand your values, you’ll be better able to look at the next situation in which your heart is pounding or you’re nervous, and recognize that it’s your body’s way of telling you that something you care about is at stake — that you’ll be able to use your stress response for taking action in service of what you value.
EL | What is the tend-and-befriend stress response, and how does it help us transform stress?
KM | Most people think of our stress response as flight-or-fight, but humans have more than one stress response. We have a repertoire.
Fight-or-flight often kicks in when we’re threatened and feeling alone. It’s a great response to have when the building is burning and you need to get out. The tend-and-befriend response is another built-in instinct for survival. We have just as strong an instinct to recognize what we can do to help others as we do one for helping ourselves.
The tend-and-befriend response drives us to pay more attention to what we can do for others and encourages us to reach out for support when we have the feeling that what we’re going through is more than we can fix on our own — whether it be financial problems, an illness, or loss of a loved one.
EL | Most people have heard about stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin, but you talk a lot about oxytocin. What is oxytocin?
KM | Oxytocin is a stress hormone with different biological effects than other stress hormones. It actually dampens the fear-and-defeat circuits in your brain and increases positive risk-taking and motivation.
It’s similar to adrenalin in that way, but oxytocin drives us to take risks that impact the well-being of others in the group. Pro-social courage — like standing up for someone we care about — is fueled by oxytocin, whereas adrenalin often drives negative risk-taking behaviors. It also sparks us to want to do things like hug a friend or pet a puppy — which are also healthy ways to deal with stress.
EL | Is there one of the mindset interventions from your book that you utilize more than others?
KM | I do the value exercise every morning before I get out of bed, because I’ve found that it changes the way I experience stress for the rest of the day.
The other one that I’ve come to embrace truly whole-heartedly — and I think the word “heart” is key — is to embrace anxiety rather than looking at life as about alleviating anxiety.
When you’re feeling signs of anxiety, you can learn to choose to interpret it as much less threatening. If you’re really paying attention, anxiety arises because your heart is in it, and your body and brain are trying to get you to see that what you’re anxious about matters and it’s there to give you fuel. Reframing the anxiety as signals from your brain and body that you care about something can help you rise to the challenge.
EL | Will you give us a teaser about your current work?
KM | Yes. My current research is on the process and benefits of cultivating compassion at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford.
Compassion isn’t a trait that you’re born with. It’s something that can be cultivated, but there are real challenges to having compassion. For example, it’s natural for us to experience self-criticism, shame, and anger. So I’m studying effective strategies and methods for building compassion in the face of those challenges.
Compassionate meditation works. So does the mindset exercise I share in The Upside of Stress, in which you can look at strangers when you pass them and remind yourself that, like you, they experience pain and want to be healthy.
So far, we’ve offered the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, with chronic pain patients, with people undergoing cancer treatments, to Stanford students, as well as people who have experienced the more common stresses of life.
EL | You’ve done books, willpower, stress, and now you’re researching compassion. How do you decide what topics to study?
KM | I’ve always been attracted to and interested in moments when people feel vulnerable and scared. In my life experience, I’ve had a lot of moments of feeling that way — feeling that level of anxiety and not quite being on solid ground.
I also have a life history of chronic pain — suffering from unexplained headaches from childhood — which can lead you to wonder, “Is this ever going to change?”
As a fitness instructor — I teach yoga, mixed martial arts, and Zumba — I wanted to write about willpower as empowerment rather than shame. The least interesting thing to me is how much people weigh. I don’t care what you want to weigh or eat, and I don’t want to judge you on your challenges.
I don’t want you to have the experience of feeling that something is wrong with you and that you’re the only one. Instead, I want people to see they aren’t alone in struggling to make choices that meet their highest values.
As a health psychologist, I started to see that the easiest way to sell something is to say that it “reduces stress.” Even things like gratitude journals and mindfulness are packaged this way sometimes.
As a researcher, I consume studies the way most people eat food. I read about five a day, and the science kept saying that stress has negative health impacts except for when it doesn’t.
But, there was a parallel thread working alongside the science of stress.
I do compassion and cultivation training. Five years ago, I took a workshop for parents with kids who died. The instructor told me that if I didn’t believe that suffering could have meaning I should stay the heck away from the workshop.
When you actually spend time with people experiencing adversity or going through extremely stressful circumstances, you begin to see that it’s demoralizing to focus on the impacts of stress rather than the meaning of stress. It does a disservice.
So I think I look for opportunities to make people feel less alone and less out of control as well as more hopeful and more connected.
Photography by Kwaku Alston