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Symposium 2015: Dr. Kelly McGonigal The Upside of Stress


r. McGonigal is a leading expert on the mind-body relationship, integrated health care and behavioral change. Her focus is on finding innovative ways of helping people manage stress by gaining a greater understanding of the mind-body connection and applying new scientific methods to achieving personal health and happiness. She is a lecturer for Stanford School of Business, has authored two books, is a blogger for Psychology Today, and her scientific research has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and the International Journal of Psychiatry and Medicine. We were thrilled to have her address 2015 Symposium attendees.

Stress and Well-Being In 2005-2006 World Gallup Poll conducted one of the largest studies ever about the relationship between stress and well-being. They created a stress index, indicating the percentage of people in each nation who said they had experienced a lot of stress, and sought out correlations of overall levels of stress with other indications of well-being. Surprisingly, this study indicated that high levels of stress actually predicted good things like longer life expectancies, higher GDP, increased overall satisfaction and greater levels of happiness. The researchers began to call this “the stress paradox” and started work to figure out how, contrary to what has been considered to be common knowledge, stress is actually a good thing. They found that people with a higher stress index were also more likely to say they experienced a great deal of love, learning, joy and laughter. Surprisingly, people who were not happy were actually not the most stressed out. In fact, the most unhappy people also seemed to show the least amount of stress. The things that make people feel stress are not the same things they like to avoid. Somehow, the things that cause stress are also the things that give rise to love, laughter and learning. How can “the enemy” be the same thing that’s associated with all the things we want to achieve in life? A more recent study by Baumeister, Vohs,

Aaker & Garbinsky (2013, US National Sample, age 18-78) showed that the more meaningful someone viewed their life to be, the more stress they were likely to be under. The things that cause stress (family relationships and responsibilities, work, changes in challenges and responsibilities, personal goals) also seem to give rise to meaning. The Gallup Poll indicated that one of the best predictors of recent stress and smiling and laughing was raising a kid under the age of 18. Raising children is both stressful and meaningful. If we were able to remove stress, we would likely also be removing the things that create meaning in our lives.

A New Way to Think About Stress As this research began to emerge, Dr. McGonigal became really concerned. As a psychologist, she has basically spent the last 15 years telling people that stress is the enemy. Over the last five years or so, the science has begun to show that there may have been a terrible unintended consequence of all this crusading against stress. Another study tracked 30,000 adults in the US who had answered questions about stress to see how many of them died over a 10-year period. The researchers were trying to test the theory that stress kills. Among some who reported a lot of stress there was a significant (43 percent) increased risk of death. However, this was not true for the entire sample. This increase in risk was only true for people who experienced a great deal of stress and believed stress was harmful to their health. It was the combination that was toxic, not the stress. People who experienced a lot of stress but didn’t view it as harmful ended up being more likely to live than even people who experienced very little stress. Another famous study, The Whitehall Study, took place in the UK in 2013. This study tracked stress and cardiovascular disease in over 7,000 middle-aged adults for 20 years and discovered the same relationship as the study in the US. Having high levels of stress only seemed to increase risk of cardiovascular problems when people believed that stress was very harmful. When people believe that stress is very damag-

ing to health they are more than twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease. Ultimately, it’s not the stress itself, but the way we think about stress that is harmful. There are two different mindsets people have when considering stress. People either view it as something to be avoided that creates negativity and difficulty, or as a tool that can be utilized to enhance experiences. Most people can see both perspectives, but lean toward one or the other. Researchers at Yale have found that the mindset you agree with more strongly predicts how you will thrive under high conditions of stress. People who take the enhancing viewpoint are less likely to become depressed, have fewer health problems, are more productive and successful at work. They’re happier. In the midst of the latest financial crash in the US, a research team set out to see if changing someone’s outlook on stress could improve their well-being. They recruited over 300 employees at a major international finance firm on Wall Street (arguably some of the individuals under the greatest amount of stress due to the crisis) and told them they were going to be given stress management training. Some were put on a “waitlist” as a control group. Others were given a typical stress reduction intervention of a series of emails with scary statistics about stress, along with video clips sharing typical stress reduction techniques. A third group received the real intervention—videos explaining that although everyone thinks it is really bad, stress can actually be beneficial. These videos also provided basic details of how stress causes the brain and body to provide more energy and focus to the task at hand. This group was also shown examples of athletes and executives who thrive under stress. The individuals who received no intervention or standard intervention didn’t exhibit any benefit. However, the people who received the science-based positive view of stress were less depressed, less anxious, in better physical condition and did better at work. Shifting to a positive view of stress can be quite transformational. When people believe stress is harmful, it changes the way stressful experiences are interpreted. If life shouldn’t be stressful because stress is bad, then when work is stressful people are more likely to believe that there’s something wrong with them or something wrong with their

job. With this view, people are more likely to feel alone, overestimate the happiness of those around them and blame themselves for their stress. All of this also makes them less likely to recruit social support from others around them that could help build resilience and meaning in their lives. They tend to attempt to deal with the experience of stress itself rather than addressing the issue that created the stress in the first place. People with this belief are more likely to cope with stress through avoidance tactics like denial, distraction, shopping, drinking, eating, smoking and giving up on their goals. Ironically, they end up creating lives that take them away from the very things that create satisfaction and meaning. Many of the things we think of as the harmful consequences of stress may actually be the consequences of trying to avoid stress. Another study (Holahan, Moos, et al. 2005, Department of Veterans Affairs, Palo Alto, CA) tracked 1,211 adults over 10 years. They asked people how they dealt with stress and found that those who said they tried to avoid stress were more likely to become depressed, get fired and get divorced. The more they tried to avoid stress, the more conflict and difficulties they experienced.

Stress-Related Resilience The brain’s pituitary gland releases DHEA (which is a precursor to testosterone and is sometimes thought of as the anti-aging hormone) when facing stressful situations. This hormone is a neurosteroid that strengthens and increases the elasticity of the brain; enabling new connections and learning. A 2015 study at Columbia University (Crum et al) subjected people to a mock job interview designed to be particularly stressful. Some subjects were shown a video before the interview sharing the typical things we’re used to hearing about stress—it’s bad for you and worse than you think, etc., while others watched a video showing how stress can be enhancing. The researchers measured the levels of stress hormones (cortisol and DHEA) subjects experienced going through this exercise. High levels of cortisol typically indicate the weaker type of stress that’s more likely to accentuate the things people fear. Higher levels of DHEA balance things like cortisol and increase the likelihood of a positive stress experience. This study showed that people who viewed the


video explaining the benefits of stress actually pumped out more DHEA during the stressful interview. The way that people think about stress actually transforms the physical reaction to stress. Over the long term, these differences can have a significant impact. Imagine if the cardiovascular response to stress is one that is actually strengthening rather than weakening, and the hormonal responses that are generated make it more likely a brain will learn resilience from stressful experiences. This mindset can be the difference between people who become crippled by stress and those who continue to learn and grow because of their stressful experiences.

Conclusion So is stress good or bad? What’s the truth? Dr. McGonigal wrapped up her presentation by explaining that the answer to this question really is “yes.” There’s scientific evidence on both sides of this question. The benefits of stress don’t come by becoming a “Pollyanna” about stress and blindly viewing it as good, but by doing what Dr. McGonigal described as holding opposites—choosing to see stress as potentially enhancing while recognizing that it is also upsetting and difficult. The body is capable of providing the energy and resources to face challenges. Ultimately, stress is an opportunity to grow and is part of the meaning of life. Dr. McGonigal closed by wishing all attendees a very stressful day. Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University and a leading expert in the new field of “science-help.” She is passionate about translating cutting-edge research from psychology, neuroscience and medicine into practical strategies for health, happiness and personal success. She can be reached at or