Stress can be the gift that makes you a stronger, more resilient person, according to Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University.
McGonigal discussed ways to turn stress from a paralyzing emotional crippler into a source of revitalization with significant mental and physical health benefits in her April 4 Morning Forum of Los Altos presentation, “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It.”
Stress is often regarded as an emotional and psychological killer, McGonigal said, noting that in a study of 30,000 American adults, approximately 43 percent accepted that premise. But as she pointed out, only those who believe that stress is harmful experienced those negative effects. Research reveals that a positive approach to stress experiences can result in beneficial physical and mental outcomes.
How people think about stress is as important as stress itself. McGonigal emphasized the different ways people think about challenging situations. Experiments have shown that a positive view of stress generates positive physical responses. That fast heartbeat and heightened receptivity, she said, is the body and brain’s preparation to meet a challenge, not a prelude to collapse.
McGonigal said stress is energy people can harness. The body prepares itself by going into a challenge response, with blood flow increasing, the brain focusing and muscles tightening. The body prepares itself for action by mobilizing stress response, which tamps down fear and helps focus on the goal of success. These are tools, McGonigal added, to solve problems.
If people don’t experience stress, according to McGonigal, they can’t learn and grow. Fear of stress can be more harmful than using it as a tool. Having a receptive attitude to stress enables you to connect to energy and use all your senses to meet a challenge, she said.
McGonigal offered an example, highlighting a test given to some U.S. Navy Seals as a good illustration of these principles. The Seals were tied up, totally restrained, and then thrown into the deep end of a pool. Their charge was to survive for a set number of minutes. Those who viewed the stress as a challenge, looking at the body’s stress response as a tool, used the reactions as problem-solvers. They were the ones who realized that jumping up and down in the deep end gave them a chance to catch a breath periodically and survive. Those who panicked failed and were hauled out of the pool.
McGonigal is a pioneer in the field of “science-help.” Her mission is to translate insights from psychology and neuroscience into practical strategies that support personal well-being and strengthen communities. She is the author of the international best-seller “The Willpower Instinct” and “The Upside of Stress.” Her 2013 TED talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” is one of the 20 most-viewed TED talks of all time.
The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets twice a month at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. For a list of speakers and membership information, visit morningforum.org.