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Is stress actually a good thing for your health?


stress free
Photo: Artem Kovalev/Unsplash
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What if your worst enemy—that dark cloud of stress that is always hanging around—could be your best friend?

Kelly McGonigal, MD, a Stanford psychologist and author of the recently published book The Upside of Stress, thinks it’s 100 percent possible. As a stress advocate (yep, for real), she believes you can use stress for your benefit. In fact, it can even make you happier, healthier, and better able to reach your goals.

the upside of stress dr. kelly mcgonigal
Photo: Eric Fuentecilla

“We’ve been told so often that when you are stressed, the only thing to do is calm down,” says Dr. McGonigal. “You’re told to escape from the stress, which is so counterproductive. It’s all about using stress to your advantage.”

In her book, Dr. McGonigal mentions a psychology professor whose football teammates (from his college days) would describe their pre-game stress as being “amped up” and “excited.” But when they referenced that same energy before exams, they called it “nerves,” “anxiety,” and “choking under pressure.” This caused him to wonder—aren’t they both the same thing?

Dr. McGonigal was also intrigued by this, and came up with a theory—which is based upon numerous referenced studies—that even though stress has a pretty bad reputation, it’s all about your mindset. Being amped up results in a better performance, while focusing too much on diminishing the stress can hinder you.

So how do you stop freaking out about your endless to-do list, money problems, relationships issues, and everything else life throws at you? First of all, Dr. McGonigal thinks you should look at stress by this definition: “Stress is what happens in your brain and your body when something you care about is at stake.” Game changer, right?

And yes, you can reset your mind so that your response to stress becomes healthier—which in turn reduces inflammation, cortisol levels, and your cardiovascular response—so that you can actually harness the energy in a positive way, rather than view as an obstacle.

Try these six mindset resets, which will give you a whole new perspective when you start to freak out—and make you start to rethink whether stress is really all that bad.

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Graphic: Julia Wu

1. Turn nerves into excitement

Make like a pro athlete and capitalize off of your jitters. “You can literally reappraise physical symptoms, whether they’re butterflies in your stomach or a pounding heart—they’re signs your body is revving up into high gear, to rise to the challenge,” explains Dr. McGonigal. “Studies show if you embrace the energy of stress, such as by calling it excitement or telling yourself you’re getting ready, it helps people do better and feel more confident.”

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Graphic: Julia Wu

2. Ask yourself what you care about

The most important things in your life aren’t typically easy to come by or maintain. (Staying healthy definitely isn’t a breeze.) And it’s super important that you remember that. “Use [them] as a reminder: This is what I care about and I can make a choice right now that gets me closer to what I want. It’s a very different mindset, rather than looking at stress as a signal that you suck at life.”

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Graphic: Julia Wu

3. Use stress as an opportunity to connect with others

Stress afflicts everyone—yes even that super-Zen coworker of yours who never seems to get flustered. “It’s really helpful to view whatever you’re going through as part of the human experience, as opposed to [evidence of something] uniquely screwed up about you,” says Dr. McGonigal. “People often feel that they’re the only ones going through something, and it’s important to notice that sort of thinking and reset. Realize it’s part of what it means to be a parent, to have a challenging job, to get a degree. Whatever the stressful situation is, realize it connects you to everyone—you’re not isolated.”

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Graphic: Julia Wu

4. Reframe the moment as a growth opportunity

“Ask yourself how the stressful situation can be your growth opportunity,” says Dr. McGonigal. “Rather than beat yourself up over a mistake, spend just two minutes thinking about what you can learn from the situation. Studies show this improves your physical stress response and even creates emotions like hope, joy, and self-forgiveness that allow you to bounce back and improve next time.”

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stress advantage
Graphic: Julia Wu

5. Ask yourself what strengths you bring to the situation

“A common misconception is that stress turns us into the worst versions of ourselves,” says Dr. McGonigal. “The neat thing about these mindset resets is that if you choose to consider the opposite of withdrawing from stress, you can switch from what might be a self-destructive tendency into more positive, productive tendencies.” It’s an opportunity to remind yourself what you’re good at—and then putting those skills to good use.

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Graphic: Julia Wu

6. Create an embrace-your-stress playlist

Dr. McGonigal also happens to be a group fitness instructor, and she loves telling her students about her stress-embracing playlist. “Pick songs that actually really speak to whatever quality you want to feel, like having the courage of a fighter or the confidence of a rock star,” she says. “Create a playlist and listen to it, rather than trying to calm down when [you’re] stressed.”  So pick your beats (when in doubt, add a little Queen Bey) and turn it up.

Still can’t get your stress under control? Here’s how one expert got a handle on her anxiety (no pills necessary). Or if you’ve got five minutes, try this quickie meditation that will stress-proof your mind.