Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Upside of Stress

The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good For You, and How to Get Good At It, by Kelly McGonigal

Well, you have to read a book by Professor McGonigal.  This was actually recommended to me, and now I'm going to recommend it to all of you, even every member of my family, because I plan to make them read it too.  It's just a really interesting book that contains some fascinating research into the nature of stress, how we deal with it, and how we can deal with it a lot better by tweaking a few thoughts.

One weird element of modern society is that people tell us to avoid stress in such a way that just makes most people laugh hopelessly.  We're convinced that stress makes us sick and unhappy, and yet most of us cannot avoid difficult workplaces, illness in the family, financial worries, and lots of other stressful things.  BUT!  It turns out that stress is far more complex than we thought, and humans are in fact great at dealing with it.  This makes intuitive sense; after all, life has always been difficult and we developed to deal with it.  If we weren't pretty tough we wouldn't be here.

Research shows that how we think about our stress has a large -- even a surprisingly large -- effect on how we deal with it.  A lot of the time when we're feeling worried (say, about an exam) we interpret it as imminent failure, as an inability to deal with the situation.  But we can also interpret it as excitement and preparation to bring a lot of energy to the task.  Stress means that a lot of physical and mental systems kick in to deal with a challenge.  And just changing our thinking around these feelings can help us to take advantage of that energy.

Stress can also nudge us into reaching out for help.  We don't only have a fight-or-flight response; we also tend to want to reach out to others, and that can help us to face the situation.  Common wisdom often encourages us to escape stress, but in fact we can do a lot better by helping our loved ones, serving others, and caring for people.

And finally, McGonigal channels Viktor Frankl and says that it's very helpful to find meaning in our suffering.  We can do this by thinking about why we're stressed and what's important to us in this situation. So:

The science also tells us that stress is most likely to be harmful when three things are true:
  1. You feel inadequate to it; 
  2. It isolates you from others; and
  3. It feels utterly meaningless and against your will.
As we've seen, how you think about stress feeds into each one of these factors.  When you view stress as inevitably harmful and something to avoid, you become more likely to feel all of these things...In contrast, accepting and embracing stress can transform these states into a totally different experience.  Self-doubt is replaced by confidence, fear becomes courage, isolation turns into connection, and suffering gives rise to meaning.
She's not just talking about simple problems here.  McGonigal is careful to state that she herself has struggled with a a fairly severe anxiety problem, and that the strategies she outlines can be most helpful to the folks with the most difficulties.  One of the most interesting parts of the book is her description of her work teaching job skills to people in poverty, with more problems than most of us deal with.  She found that talking about this stuff could make an enormous difference.

I thought this was a fabulous book, and one that Everybody Should Read.  My younger daughter has started it and says she likes it too.  Go forth and read!


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In other news, it's been really hard to find any blogging time lately, maybe because the semester is winding down.  There's all this stuff happening -- concerts and graduation (for one kid), and I had a lovely opportunity to spend a weekend at Tahoe with my husband too.  That was really nice.  And I went and saw TWO movies in one week!  One was an all-time favorite, Labyrinth, which then sparked a desire to read the Jim Henson biography I've wanted to read for a couple of years now.  And it's great!  I've got lots of other good books to tell you about too....though it may have to wait until my job ends after next week!

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