Conventional wisdom — and plenty of research — asserts that stress is terrible for your health. It makes you susceptible to colds and other illnesses and can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and all manner of other problems.
But an emerging body of research shows that the harmful part of stress often stems from believing that stress is terrible for you. One study from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, published in the journal Health Psychology, found that 182,000 people may have died prematurely because they believed their stress was bad for their health. The perception of stress was significant — not just the stress itself.
Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., a lecturer at Stanford University, had her mind blown by such research, and it completely shifted her approach to helping people get and stay healthy. Now instead of guiding people to eliminate stress from their lives, she advises them to embrace stress and use it to their advantage.
She recently published The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It and appeared on a Minnesota Public Radio show to talk about her book. Here are four mindset shifts you can try for for getting good at navigating stress.
Stress is really not the enemy
McGonigal is taken with a recent body of research suggesting that stress actually helps people cope with challenges in their lives—no matter the source of the stress. When people view stress as toxic instead of beneficial, it can cause more physical, emotional, or psychological harm than that stress itself:
“What begets more harm is trying to avoid or suppress stress. You’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious, and your first thought is, ‘I need a drink’ or ‘I can’t handle this.’ Instead, we can view stress as a signal from the body and brain that we are actually rising to the challenge.”
McGonigal believes that if people stopped viewing stress as damaging and accepted it, they could harness that stress.
In turn, they would use it as a catalyst for reaching out to others or taking action to make positive changes in their lives.
Making meaning and getting stronger
When talking with people about stress, in the past McGonigal had often imparted the message that stress was dangerous. She would have them go through a checklist of stressful life events, such as job loss or divorce, tally up the score, and declare that a high score put them at risk for getting sick or dying. Standard psychology.
But she noticed something interesting — when she would give this lecture, people seemed demoralized and depressed:
“When talking with people about the choices they had — that they could trust their natural instincts to rise to the challenge, and that there are ways of relating to stress that we are built for, that we have built into our biology the capacity to connect with others when we’re stressed, to make meaning out of it and to get stronger as result of going through adversity — I saw on people’s faces that this new mindset was giving them the ability to engage with their lives in a much more courageous and hopeful way.”
She acknowledges research showing that stress may lead to cardiac or other health problems. But by emphasizing the upside of stress and that people are fully capable of rising to the occasion, they will feel empowered, more resilient, and better able to take on their challenges, McGonigal notes.
Don’t let stress be a self-fulfilling prophecy
Stress is a response that your body produces, reflecting what you are thinking and how you are feeling in that moment. That can mean a pounding heart or releasing stress hormones:
“Stress is by definition rooted in your appraisals of how you think about your own ability to handle a situation, the support you think is available to you, and how you are thinking about what you are facing. That is the root of stress. The only way to change what’s happening in your body is to change the way you’re thinking.”
By shifting your thinking, you actually can change your biological response to stress, which in turns builds more inner strength.
Instead of framing stress as a fight or flight situation — often producing anxiety and feeling out of control — try to view it as producing a challenge response. This actually can give people more energy and the ability to take charge of situations.
Be open to the health benefits of stress
Enduring and conquering stress actually can have positive health effects. McGonigal cites evidence that people who experience some adversity in their lives tend to be happier and healthier than those who experience little:
“There is ample evidence that those who had more stress in the workplace and more pressure and demands over their career show brain resilience as they age and are less likely to experience dementia and other deterioration. Built into stress is the ability to strengthen our brain and make it more resilient.”
Reduced likelihood of dementia tomorrow helps to put the stress of today into perspective.
A positive attitude towards stress can make a real difference
Ultimately, it’s about shifting your outlook on stress — and separating a devastating experience from the pressure of being tested. Consider how you can step back and look differently at some of the stress you encounter in your workplace: you might not be able to stop it from happening, but you may be able to change the way that you perceive it.