by Catherine Duffy
Stress. We all deal with it on many levels and in many forms every day. Whether in our homes, at work, with family members or partners, sometimes it feels as though stress follows us around like an ironclad shadow.
I had always heard that stress is bad for the human body, increases both our blood pressure and stress hormone secretion, and brings with it more fat distribution and loss of memory for those suffering from its effects.
Words like heaviness, churning, hardness, and pulling come to mind when I think of my own physical stress response in a given situation during the day. No matter what, the idea of stress never conjures for me any sense of healthiness, happiness, or well-being.
Until about a year ago…
That’s when my Mindfulness Teacher Training Program required us to read the book, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It, by Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD. With a title like that, I was more than a little skeptical: what is this author talking about with an up-side to stress? Isn’t stress something I’m supposed to protect myself from or try to quell when it rears its ugly head?
Maybe McGonigal was using a different definition of stress than my preconceived notion of the word, I reasoned, as I opened to the book’s introduction for the beginning of an answer.
In my mind, stress encapsulated pain, suffering, and overwhelm from big issues like divorce and loss, as well as the irritation and frustration of smaller issues like rush hour traffic and forgotten doctor appointments. So what definition was this author referring to that included an up-side to stress?
The answer both surprised and intrigued me. McGonigal suggests that, “Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake.” Hmm…so part of the reason I experience stress is because of the things in my life that I care about?
She goes on to point out that this definition also highlights another important factor: “Stress and meaning are inextricably linked.” Or in other words: “You can’t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress.”
Anything I do that’s meaningful will include tendrils of stress wrapped up with it, McGonigal was saying. I hadn’t thought of this relationship between stress and a meaningful life before. So could stress actually be a good thing, in part, because of its link to areas of my life that I especially care about?
The author further spotlighted this stress-meaning relationship for her readers through one of the book’s writing exercises where she invites her readers to rethink stress by considering one’s “most meaningful roles, relationships, activities, or goals.” She goes on to ask her audience to consider what parts of life tend to elicit joy, love, and a sense of purpose, then asks the question: “Would you also describe any of [your answers to what’s meaningful in your life] as sometimes or frequently stressful?”
So McGonigal wasn’t necessarily saying that stress is a happy, warm and fuzzy thing; she was validating that stress can be part of the challenge and pain that we experience with some of life’s most meaningful relationships and situations. And she was saying that since we likely want to live a meaningful life, it is worth considering how we cultivate new mindsets around stress so that it works with us rather than against us, and vice versa, creating this meaningful up-side.
The author’s myriad illustrations of the upside of stress fill the remaining chapters of her thought-provoking book, beginning with the mindfulness practices of common humanity and acceptance. Amazing studies are cited like the one in which college freshmen are given opportunities to hear from upper-classmen about the latter’s stressful feelings of not belonging when they, too, were freshmen…and the astounding mindset changes that this mindfulness exercise in common humanity had on the incoming freshmen class.
Journal-type writing is also employed around accepting and finding meaning in everyday stress. The author introduces a list of common values and asks the reader to select their top three values from the list. Next, the reader is asked to select the top one value from their initial list of three. Then finally, after selecting their top value, the reader is asked to write about this value for ten minutes. Stanford psychologists Geoffrey Cohen and David Sherman call this process part of a “narrative of personal adequacy,” as writing about one’s values “is one of the most effective psychological interventions ever studied. [It] makes people feel more powerful, in control, proud, and strong. It also makes them feel more loving, connected, and empathetic towards others…they are more likely to view the adversity they are going through as temporary, and less likely to think that the problem reveals something unalterably screwed up about themselves or their lives.”
McGonigal also gives her readers a window into mindfulness exercises conducted with physicians around the topic of burnout and suggests provocative questions to help the reader stay open to whatever they may be feeling or sensing in their body or mind rather than shutting down and tuning out in the presence of stress.
Bottom line, the author teaches her readers that regardless of how hard we might try to make it otherwise, stress is going to be a part of our life experience as long as meaningful relationships, work, and roles are also part of the equation.
Sure, some days will still feel like we’re pulling an ironclad shadow around behind us. But when we remember that the heaviness of stress also signals how meaningful the current situation is to us, maybe it’s time to adjust our focus. ‘Mindfulness is always mindful of something,’ as Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Han says. And according to Kelly McGonigal, when I focus more mindfully on my stress, it actually helps me stay open to the presence of pain while ushering me to a place of growth and deeper meaning in my life. In other words, although it means enduring stress, life’s pain is actually a gateway to a more meaningful life. And in spite of the stress and uncomfort of it, a meaningful life sounds like a worthwhile up-side to me.
OK, I’m in.