As a society, we often appear to be waging a war on stress. We now have everything from de-stressing massage and anti-stress skin cream to stress-free banking and anti-stress coloring books. An enormous amount of medical and psychological research is focused on combating stress as a way to boost mood and lengthen life expectancy. But despite all that effort, stress keeps resisting our endeavors to bust it. Some even question whether reducing stress is always a good thing. Enter Stanford University’s Kelly McGonigal, author of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It, to challenge our one-sided view of stress. Her premise: “Whether you think stress is good or bad for you, you’re right.”
Drawing on research in resilience, cognitive psychology, attachment, and neuroscience, McGonigal insists we have a choice to view stressful situations as being invariably toxic or as opportunities to face a healthy challenge. According to her, it’s our misunderstanding of our relationship with stress that’s the problem, not the stress itself.
RH: How did you become interested in stress in the first place?
MCGONIGAL: When you’re a health psychologist, you’re taught that stress is the number-one problem that human beings experience: it’s blamed for everything. So when I started leading stress-management classes at the Stanford School of Medicine, I based them on the prevailing belief that a large part of reducing people’s suffering necessarily involved teaching them to reduce or avoid stress. But soon the new science I was learning made me start to rethink the very idea of stress.
The more I learned about working with chronic pain, compassion, and willpower, the clearer it became that people’s desire to avoid what they’re actually experiencing consistently makes things worse. So if you’re someone who’s dealing with chronic pain and everything in your life is designed to help you avoid or reduce the experience of pain, that’s the best predictor that your pain will get worse, and your life will get smaller, and you’ll end up even more depressed.
For every form of suffering that I studied, it was clear that the more people tried to avoid an inner experience they thought they couldn’t handle, the worse things got. Regardless of how much we’d like a life that’s less stressful, or how much we don’t like how stress feels in our bodies, the more we try to avoid those feelings or the situations that trigger them, the more we create a life that’s limited and experience a sense of self that’s fearful.
RH: The opposite of avoiding stress is approaching things that are uncomfortable or difficult by using something you’ve also studied extensively—willpower. Why is willpower important?
MCGONIGAL: If you want more willpower, you have to do things that are really hard. It’s sort of a paradox, but we can’t wait until things are easy. We have to do them while they’re hard and uncomfortable and difficult. When people do that, they typically have self-doubt, but through that process, they get to experience the transformation that makes positive behavioral change possible.
I spent years working with people suffering from chronic pain. I learned that what helped them was learning to stay in their bodies when they were in pain instead of immediately trying to escape the pain by taking a pill or dissociating. I found that the more you’re willing to feel what you’re feeling, the more you’re actually able to have a different experience of that pain. So I’ve spent years trying to figure out how to help people understand that this is true, even though they’re told, “You shouldn’t feel this, and if you do, you should do something to get rid of it.” In other words, experiencing stress can be helpful, and researchers have now become better at identifying the many ways human beings have for responding positively to stress, whether it’s post-traumatic growth, or what I call a challenge response.
RH: What’s that?
MCGONIGAL: A challenge response happens when we’re in a situation where something we care about is at stake and we feel like “Okay, I think I can handle this. I don’t know if I’m going to succeed, but I trust myself to try.” This response is filled with benefits for our cardiovascular system, our immune system, and our brain resilience. We should all be trying to have that experience in the same way that we should all be trying to get a daily workout at the gym. It’s really important for people to understand that regular experiences of stress are the way we empower ourselves and create resilience.
RH: A basic premise of your work is the belief that secure attachment plays a central role in the response to stress. Why is attachment so important?
MCGONIGAL: When you look at people who respond to stress as a healthy challenge, they seem to be rooted in secure attachment. In contrast, avoidant attachment ends up dramatically limiting the stress-response repertoire. If you’re not comfortable relying on social support, that increases fears of feeling compassion for others. Attachment anxiety is often associated with increased distress, a decreased sense of self-reliance, and the lack of feeling you can handle things.
RH: How does this translate to how we should parent our kids?
MCGONIGAL: When parents ask me how to help their kids be good at stress, I always say, “Don’t try to helicopter your kids so they don’t feel the stress of a bad grade or social rejection. The important thing is whether your child has a relationship with an adult that feels unconditional and safe.” Edith Chen’s research on kids growing up in really bad environments and poverty shows that having one solid relationship—it doesn’t even need to be a primary caregiver—is essential to give them a mindset that makes them resilient to the effects of not just childhood stress, but later stress as well. So much of what allows us to be good at stress is attachment security, which builds in us a sense of our own resources, both internal and social.
RH: As I was late driving to the airport last week, I wondered how I could use my stress as a challenge and opportunity for growth. Any ideas?
MCGONIGAL: When I’m in that situation, I often allow myself to recognize that my stress response is a signal that I care. Resetting my stress mindset in this way works in almost every situation, because it gives you an opportunity to think about what you really care about. As soon as you think about the positive things you care about—like going to an interesting work opportunity, why your work matters to you, why your family matters to you—you’re already transforming your physiology and your attitude. It doesn’t necessarily have to go further than that. People wonder how they’re supposed to transform things like road rage. Well, sometimes the stress response comes because we feel like there’s more at stake than there really is. Taking a moment to just reflect on that and what we care about can give us a reset. We don’t actually need to escalate the stress response into trying to experience some sort of growth from it.
RH: What’s your message to psychotherapists?
MCGONIGAL: One thing I’m always telling people who work with suffering is that they’re not helping people by telling them that the inescapable realities of their lives are toxic. I get more pushback from psychotherapists on that than anything else. It’s one thing to say, “You’re very stressed, and your life is difficult.” But too many therapists add in the message that the real stresses in their clients’ lives are killing them—which is so demoralizing. I’m always encouraging people in the health profession to avoid telling the people they serve that the reality of their lives is unacceptable. That’s very different from actually helping people or expressing genuine compassion.
RH: How about the stress of being a therapist?
MCGONIGAL: Anyone who’s around people who are suffering on a regular basis will catch some of their distress. In fact, you’re going to be a lousy therapist if you try to put up armor to try to protect yourself from your clients’ suffering. However, being open to experiencing the fullness of other people means not only responding to their suffering and stress, but recognizing their potential for post-traumatic growth and resilience. You need to be able to see people’s strength alongside their suffering and think about their ability to change the narratives of their lives, or how the meaning of events can change over time as they make fuller sense of them.
We all know about empathic distress and vicarious trauma. We need to bear in mind that therapists can also experience contagious hope and the contagious power of resilience.