Harnessing “The Upside of Stress”

Stress in and of itself is not bad for us. Here’s why it’s good and how to handle it.



Whenever I feel compelled to talk a lot about something I have just learned, I realize that it is an important idea. Further, when I feel compelled to tell a client in a coaching conversation about it, even when I don’t feel totally comfortable with the idea, I realize that it is indeed a very important idea. This is true of what I want to share with you today.  I am still learning about it and working to see how it relates to what I already understand, but I don’t want to wait any longer to tell you about it. Plus, writing to you helps me integrate new ideas.

The important idea has to do with our relationship to stress and how we have a lot of power over how stress affects us and is contained in a book called The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good For You, and How to Get Good At It, by Kelly McGonigal. I am reading this book on the recommendation of Allison Wolf, a lawyer coach in British Columbia. (BTW, she has a blog site called AWAL or “Attorney With A Life” and she has just asked me to be a contributor there, to which I agreed with gratitude.) Allison and I are collaborating on a presentation for the Ontario Bar Association’s Mindful Lawyers CPD Series on resilience. When I first spoke to Allison in our planning meeting, she was saying that she thought every lawyer should read The Upside of Stress and that she believed the ideas in it were critical for our presentation on resilience. I had seen Kelly McGonigal’s Ted Talk “How to Make Stress Your Friend”, but had not yet read the book, and so had not really taken the time and energy to absorb the concepts she is presenting.  I am grateful to Allison for recommending that I read the book and am excited to continue to collaborate with her for our June 1 presentation.

I want to start by sharing one key idea that I have taken away from the book so far: stress in and of itself is not bad for us. Rather, it is our belief that stress is bad that makes it bad for us. Kelly McGonigal offers many studies to prove this assertion. In brief, there are two stress hormones (cortisol and dehydroepiandorsterone (DHEA) which are released, and it is the ratio of these two hormones that can influence the long term consequences of stress. This ratio is called the “growth index” of a stress response, since stress can help our brain grow. The growth index of stress response is a measure of resilience. There are studies that show that, using our belief as to how stress affects us, we can manipulate this ratio so that it is healthier for us in the long term. In other words, we have a choice as to how we want to relate to stress and that choice will affect our long term health. (See page 10 of the book for more.)  Wow!

When I am learning something new, I am always looking to see how I can connect it with what I have already learned. So, I was excited when I saw that Kelly McGonigal refers to the growth mindset, or as she calls it the challenge mindset, a concept that I love and espouse. (See my blog posts on growth mindset here.) Essentially, when we are faced with a challenge or obstacle, we can choose to see it as an opportunity for growth. When we feel the stress chemicals wash through our bodies, our heart rate increasing, etc, we can say to ourselves, “There’s my body preparing me to handle this situation – thank you body”, and accept that help and move forward ready to grow and find the opportunity in the challenge.

Beyond choosing to be in a growth mindset, another choice that I espouse and aspire to is to choose to live in love not fear – to make decisions from a place of love, not fear. This can be challenging to live into, since our culture is saturated with a fear and a scarcity mentality (e.g. we don’t have enough, we aren’t enough, we aren’t protected enough etc.). The love-based approach also fits with the growth mindset and is appropriate for Valentine’s Day too. When you are operating from fear (perhaps specifically, fear of failure) and you are faced with a stressful situation, you might say to yourself: “OMG how am I going to deal with this? I am so overwhelmed already!! I don’t have time! And now my heart is racing, my hands are clammy and I feel totally frazzled and I can’t think clearly.”

I am going to bet if these thoughts run through you, you are going to contract in your body, effectively rejecting the sensations in you that are trying to help you to handle the challenge. That doesn’t mean you still won’t be feeling the stress response but you won’t necessarily be taking advantage of it’s help fully. And you may be negatively affecting the growth index of your stress response, in other words, not getting the healthy benefits of your stress. Instead, what if you were to say to yourself: “OMG, how am I going to deal with this? …Oh, I can feel my body helping me. Thank you body! [Love and gratitude]. Ok, what’s my opportunity here? I can practice prioritizing. I can see what help I can ask for (mentoring, delegating); I have also been practising asking for help, so that would be good. [Growth mindset and not being fearful, being curious.] How will this help me in another area of my life? [Work-life synergy!] Maybe I will take a moment and do a slow yoga stretch or a few deep mindful breaths to help me see other options. [In other words, slow down in order to speed up.]”

With this approach of love, of challenge and growth, not fear of failure, you are expanding into the challenge, accepting help from yourself (your body), and understanding that you will grow from the process.  You will be energized in a positive way that will help you move closer to well-being/happiness.  I believe that we operate better and feel more fulfillment  and peace when we act from a place of connection to our whole selves, mind, body and spirit. This approach to stress is aligned with that belief.

So, as you can see, I am really excited by the potential of these ideas – for the new understanding and growth that they are bringing to me and to others. What I am still seeking to integrate into these new ideas is my understanding that it is chronic stress that is bad for us. My understanding is that we need to be able to interrupt our stress on a daily basis to keep it from becoming chronic, and trigger the opposite effect – the “relaxation response”: The relaxation response was defined by Herbert Benson, MD, in 1974 when he found that there was an opposite state to the stress response (the fight-or-flight response). The relaxation response is a state of deep rest that changes the short- and long-term physical and emotional responses to stress (e.g., decreases in heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension). Methods to elicit the relaxation response include meditation, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, tai chi, and yoga. Source: www.bensonhenryinstitute.org/building-resiliency/2-uncategorised/34-faq

I have not found any mention of the relaxation response in The Upside of Stress so far, so will have to do more digging for more understanding. In the mean time, I will be experimenting with this new understanding of stress and, of course, finishing the book! Stay tuned!

What about you? How are these ideas affecting you?



Author: Milisa Burns

Milisa Burns is a certified professional coach, former lawyer and married mother of three, with her own website: www.milisaburns.com.

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