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Is There an Upside to Stress?

This blog post could change your life—maybe even prolong it.

If you get stage fright before a presentation (and who doesn’t?), if you are under stress (and who isn’t?), if you think stress is bad for you (and who doesn’t?), then I strongly recommend that you read and take to heart the central message of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, by Kelly McGonigal.

Whether you think stress is bad for you or good for you, you’re right.

To put that last statement in a less cryptic way: stress can improve your performance, make you stronger, and even make you a more caring person—as long as you believe it can. In fact, the best way to succeed in stressful situations is not to try to reduce your stress, but to embrace it as a resource to propel enhanced performance.

I realize that sounds like superficial motivational hooey, brought to you by the same people who tell you that you can do anything you set your mind to, but McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford, backs up her assertions with extensive research and a few eye-opening studies.

In some ways, The Upside of Stress does not tell us anything new. We’ve all heard the meme that what does not kill you makes you stronger, and I have long been telling students in my presentations classes that anxiety before a speech means that you care and that you are gearing up for superior performance. So, yes, we have heard some of this before, but this is the first book I’ve come across that backs that up with research and explains the biology behind these ideas.

What is also new is that we learn that there is more than one possible response to stress. We’ve been taught that stress is caused by the activation of the fight or flight response in our minds and bodies. That response is a natural reaction to threat, which prepares our minds and bodies for superior performance, but it evolved many millennia ago in a far different environment than our modern world. So, according to the mismatch theory, our stone-age brains respond to modern circumstances in ways that can hamper performance and over time can severely damage our health.

That makes sense if fight or flight is our only option, but McGonigal explains that there are actually three different possible responses to stressful situations. Besides the familiar threat response, we can have a challenge response or a tend-and-befriend response. Although both possible responses are equally important to well-being, my focus in this blog is on the challenge response.

The difference between the threat response and the challenge response lies in our estimation of our ability to meet the situation that faces us. When we’re fearing for our life, our body does the sensible thing: it goes into defensive mode and sends out hormones that cause a lot of changes; one of the most important is that it constricts blood vessels around our heart, because it might reduce blood loss in the event of severe injury. When we’re not in fear, different hormones cause the blood vessels to relax, which allows for greater blood flow and more energy to rise to the challenge and drives better performance, not to mention being better for us in the long run.

Evoking the challenge response does not reduce stress, but it does make the stress work in our favor. In studies, it has been shown that simply informing people that stress can help them perform better, can lead to improved performance on standardized tests, for example. One reason may be that the threat response narrows our attention and places greater focus on signs that things are going badly, but the challenge response opens our attention to more positive possibilities and opportunities. In numerous studies, those primed to generating a challenge response through prior education led to better performance. Even better, the benefits tend to last far beyond the initial priming.

So, how do you generate the challenge response? The most obvious first step is to avoid the threat response by creating the conditions so that you are not actually in danger. If you are well prepared for a presentation, you should take comfort in the fact that you are equipped to handle any difficult questions that might come up. (Or as I tell my students, if you’re nervous because you haven’t prepared well, you deserve to be!)

You can also activate the challenge response by viewing the stressful situation as an opportunity for learning and growth. As I’ve written before, this mastery mindset has been shown to improve performance in several different areas, including sales.

Actually, you’ve already completed one of the most important things you can do to generate the challenge response and benefit from stress: simply by reading this article, you are more likely to bring a different mindset to your next stressful situation!

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