Are You Getting Enough Stress?



Dr. Kelly McGonigal wants us to have more stress. While others repeatedly tell us to avoid it, manage it, or downright eliminate it, she suggests we embrace it. So what’s the catch? Is McGonigal a workaholic? A masochist? Or is she just plain uninformed? Turns out, she’s none of these things. McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University, and she’s at the forefront of a movement to rethink one of the hottest health issues today – our relationship with stress.

McGonigal’s big reveal in The Upside of Stress is that it’s not our stress that’s killing us. It’s how we think about it. In a study of 30,000 participants, researchers learned that those who described their stress levels as high and harmful increased their risk of dying by 43%. In contrast, those who reported high stress levels “but who did not view their stress as harmful . . . had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.”

These findings really hit home for me. All I’ve ever heard about stress is that we should avoid it — the health warnings are daunting. Yet I’ve never understood how we can take on new challenges without opening ourselves up to stress. That’s why the advice, “don’t stress out” or “relax,” never made sense to me. Isn’t stress a natural part of learning? Can’t it enrich our lives? And that’s what makes McGonigal’s argument so compelling – she helps us rethink our limited assumptions about stress.

It turns out that people who report high stress levels also report high levels of meaning and purpose. Studies show that “’People with very meaningful lives worry more and have more stress than people with less meaningful lives.’” If stress “arises when something you care about is at stake,” then stress is the natural byproduct of “engaging in roles and pursuing goals that feed our sense of purpose.” It’s called the “stress paradox”, when “high levels of stress are associated with both distress and well-being.” Stressful lives – ones filled with relationships, work, parenting and caregiving, for example – are also meaningful lives.

It’s when our lives lack meaning and purpose that stress is harmful. And it’s the kind of harm that can creep up on us when we try to avoid stress, because deliberate avoidance often means we’re

  • missing out on opportunities that can enhance our lives
  • then engaging in unhealthy coping strategies as a result
  • and, ultimately, limiting our future

When it comes to stress, McGonigal advises us to do three things – all backed by research:

  1. Engage with it – use it like athletes do to rise to a challenge
  2. Connect with others through it – you’ll gain resilience
  3. Grow from it – adversity teaches us we’re stronger than we think

McGonigal includes simple, research-based stress interventions you can do alone or with friends, family, or even your students. Let’s face it. Stress needs a makeover – we’ve been looking at it the same way for a long time. McGonigal’s insights provide a fresh perspective, one that helps us see how our attitude toward stress can make our lives a whole lot richer.

So you may want to ask yourself, am I getting enough stress?