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Kelly McGonigal: How to Turn Stress Into an Advantage

About this talk

In her book, The Upside of Stress, McGonigal asks, “If you could choose how stressful tomorrow will be, would you hope for a great deal of stress?” Our natural response is likely a resounding “No.” Yet, as McGonigal shows, a subtle shift in perspective around stress can be incredibly empowering. By reframing stress as a good thing and a sign of personal progress, we can avoid some of the baggage that comes with becoming stressed and actually turn our anxious feelings into a source of strength.

Kelly McGonigal, Author

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University and a leading expert on the mind-body relationship. She is the author of several books, including The Upside of Stress, the international bestseller The Willpower Instinct, and The Neuroscience of Change. She has worked with the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education since 2009, co-authoring the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) program and collaborating on scientific studies examining how compassion can promote health and happiness.

She has consulted for a wide range of organizations and industries ranging from healthcare and higher education to technology and finance, helping to bring evidence-based strategies for resilience and well-being into the workplace.

Full Transcript

Hello. I’d like to start with a little stress icebreaker. Just by a show of hands, how many of you would say that yesterday was very stressful? Who had a stressful day yesterday? So, you’re doing pretty good. Actually globally the average is 33%, in the U.S. it’s about 43%.

Well, let me ask you that question a slightly different way. If you could choose how stressful tomorrow would be, how many of you would say you hope that tomorrow you’ll experience a great deal of stress? Who wants tomorrow to be really stressful? A handful, a few brave handful of folks.

So, what I want to talk to you about today is how we think about what the right answer to that question is supposed to be and more broadly, what we think the relationship of stress should be in our lives. What do we think the role of stress is in our lives? I’m a health psychologist, and I was taught and trained to view stress as the enemy of well being, of productivity, of happiness and of health, and I spent many years trying to help people reduce their stress or avoid stress. But in the last few years, I fundamentally changed my mind about stress. And today, I want to change your minds. And I want to start by talking about something that I call the stress paradox.

I went to 121 countries and asked people the same question that I asked you, did you experience a great deal of stress yesterday? And then they computed something called a stress index, and that’s the percentage of people, in any country, that said yes, yesterday was very stressful. So if 99U were a nation, I’d peg you guys at about 5

So they conducted that data set about ten years ago. And more recently, a group of psychologists got their hands on that data, and asked a very interesting question. Does a country’s stress index correlate to with other indices of wellbeing, like life expectancy, GDP, the global happiness, or the satisfaction with people’s lives? And it turns out that it does. But in exactly the opposite direction the researchers expected.

The higher the nations stress index, the greater the GDP and life expectancy, the more satisfied people are in that nation with their live, with their work, their communities, their own health. The happier they are. Basically the more people you have who thought yesterday was very stressful, that’s better for public health, it’s better for the economy and it’s better any way you look at it. And that kinda blew the researchers’ minds, it blew my mind when I saw that. Not what we were expecting.

And so, in order to better understand this odd correlation between stress and well being the researchers looked at what other experiences seemed to correlate with a high stress index. And they found, as you might expect, that on the day that people found very stressful, they were also more likely to feel sadness, to feel worried, or to feel angry. That’s how we usually feel about stress. But a high stress index was also correlated with some interesting things, like feeling a great deal of joy yesterday.

Laughing a lot yesterday, saying that you felt a lot of love yesterday, or saying that you learned something interesting yesterday. And what the researchers realized is that the same circumstances that give rise to stress, also give rise to these positive experiences and that’s what I call the stress paradox. That even though we experience stress in the moment as distressing and we often think of it as being undesirable in our lives, we might wish for a less stressful life.

But actually, stress can be a barometer for how engaged you are with the things in your life, that bring love, that bring laughter, that bring learning and that bring growth. That stress actually seems to go along with the things that we most desire, the love, the happiness, the success, the wealth, the satisfaction, and the meaning in our lives.

So more recently, a group of psychologists asked a broad sample in the United States of people to reflect on whether or not they felt like their lives had meaning. And you might think about how you would answer this question. Do you think that your life is meaningful? And then they gave people a whole bunch of other surveys to find out what’s the predictor of having a meaningful life, or feeling like your life is meaningful. And it turns out one of the best predictors is stress, anyway you measure it.

So people who experience a higher level of stress in their life right now, like say yesterday was very stressful, those folks are more likely to find meaning in their lives. If you look back in a person’s life to see how much adversity they faced in that context of their lives, that also predicts more meaning in their lives. Even the amount of time you spend every day worrying about the future, that predicts a greater sense of meaning in your life. And in fact, one of the researchers’ main conclusions of their study of what makes a meaningful life, they concluded that overall, people who have a meaningful life, worry more and experience much more stress than people with a less meaningful life.

And this is a really different way to think about what stress means. That stress could be a signal that you are engaged in the goals, in the roles, the relationships, you’re pursuing the goals. And you’re facing the challenges that will also give rise to meaning in your life. And I think all too often instead, when the moment of stress is arising, we view that stress, whether it’s anxiety, overwhelm, sadness, despair, anger, frustration. We view that stress as a signal that either we are inadequate to the challenges of our lives, right, or we shouldn’t be feeling stressed out. Or maybe we think that our lives have actually become toxic, that there is something fundamentally wrong with us or wrong with our lives and we might actually turn our attention to trying to avoid the things that give rise to stress.

And that brings me to the next reason why I changed my mind about stress and want to change your mind about stress. Because it turns out how you think about stress and the stress in your own life plays a profound roll on how it effects your wellbeing, whether that stress is harmful and leads to things like depression and burnout and heart disease. Or whether the presence of stress in your life actually leads to greater wellbeing and resilience.

So what you’re gonna see here are two different ways of thinking about stress. And as you invite you to think of which one best describes the way that I talk about stress, the way that I think about stress, and the way that I relate to stress in my own life. Is stress negative? Something that needs to be avoided, reduced, managed, suppressed? Or is stress positive, helpful, a good thing? I should embrace it, accept it, and use it. And it turns out that which one of these mindsets you hold plays a really big role in how that stress in your life affects you.

So researchers at Yale have found that people who hold this more negative perception of stress and believe it should be reduced or avoided, they are more likely to experience what we typically think of as the negative outcomes of stress. They’re more likely to have health problems, like Back pain or headaches or illnesses. They’re more likely to become depressed. They’re less productive at work. They enjoy their work less. They’re even more likely to get divorced. Other studies, other research groups have shown that they believe may actually increase your risk of stress related heart attacks or mortality. And on the other side, people who hold a more positive and accepting view of stress seem to be protected from those things, even when their lives are stressful. They’re healthier. They’re happier. They’re doing better at work. They’re better able to find meaning in their struggles. And I have to tell you that when I first started coming across this research I was deeply skeptical.

And I, actually, this is how I thought about it. I thought the reason those people on this side of the line are happier and healthier, that’s because they haven’t experienced enough stress yet. You suffer a little bit more and you will join me on this side of the line where we have the accurate correct mind set that stress really is bad. That it really is a problem. And the great thing about science is you can test those hypotheses and that turns out not to be true. Actually the protective benefit of embracing stress rather than trying to reduce or avoid stress seems to hold whether your life is currently not very stressful or extremely stressful. And whether or not you’ve had a relatively easy life, or whether your life has had a lot of adversity in it. This mindset seems to help.

And most importantly to me, as someone who wants to help people be healthier and happier. Research shows that when you tell people about the importance of stress mindsets and, you encourage them to choose a more accepting and embracing attitude toward the stress in their own lives. They actually become healthier, and happier, more productive at work even in very difficult and stressful circumstances.

So what I wanna do with you in the rest of the talk, is give you all a mini mindset intervention that will help you choose this more accepting and embracing attitude towards stress in the moments when stress is arising, whether it’s the anxiety, the anger, the overwhelmed, the frustration, the sadness. And to give you that mindset intervention, I’m actually gonna tell you about three of my favorite scientific studies that actually tests out. If someone tries to take a positive view of stress when they’re stressed out, how does that transform their experience of stress?

I’m gonna start with a study that was conducted at Columbia Business School. And in this study, they brought people in to the laboratory to give, to prepare and then deliver a persuasive talk. And they were told that their talk would be evaluated by experts in communication. And they were going to be getting critical feedback on everything from the body language and facial expressions, to what they said and how they said it. And in fact, when they actually showed up and started to give their speech, they didn’t know this was gonna happen, but the experts actually interrupt them often to tell them exactly what they’re doing wrong. Your body language suggests that you lack confidence. You need to try to stand this way, or you need to make better eye contact and here’s what that would look like. Or you use a really weak example. You need to come up with a better example. Let’s just go back in your speech and try that again. All right, so this is a pretty stressful experience for folks to go through.

And before they went through that period of receiving critical feedback and having to adapt immediately to that critical feedback, all the participants watched one of two very short videos about stress. And some unlucky participants were forced to watch a three-minute video that started with a very demoralizing statement that says, everyone knows stress is bad for you. But research shows that stress is even more debilitating than you expect.

And everything that you usually hear about stress. I mean to tell you what’s in this video. You could tell me what’s in this video. Stress makes you sick. Stress interferes with performance. Stress will kill you. It’s a problem. You need to reduce it or avoid it. Okay, some other participants got the real mindset intervention, which was a short video that started with a very different statement. Everyone knows that stress is bad for you. But research shows that stress is actually enhancing. And this video informed participants that your own stress response, how your body and brain responds to stress, can help you rise to a challenge, can actually improve performance.

Stressful experiences are an important part of life. They help us learn and grow. That they can actually be an opportunity to develop strengths and choose our priorities. Right, so, we’re giving a very different, sort of a mind set that combines both the meaning and the growth that is connected to stress, that paradox of stress. And then everyone had to give their speech and get this negative feedback and adapt on the spot. And the researchers were curious whether giving people a slightly positive spin on stress would transform their experience. And the first thing to get out of the way is that everyone in the study was stressed out. If it didn’t sound bad to you, it’s probably worse than it sounds. It really is nerve-wracking for folks, and everyone experienced it as stressful. However, the people who were put in this more positive mindset, the accepting mindset towards stress. They wildly still felt stress. They also felt more confident, more determined, even more excited about the experience.

And the researchers also looked at their physiological stress response. Now you’ve all heard about certain stress hormones, adrenaline, cortisol. But there are a lot of hormones that the body and the brain release during stress and one is DHEA. And most people don’t know that this is a stress hormone. DHEA sort of below your neck, it plays a role in being a precursor to testosterone, and it helps your body get stronger from physical stress like exercise. And its role in the brain is actually to function as a neuro-steroid. Which is a real thing. All right? Your body produces neurosteroids, which is a hormone that helps your brain grow from stressful experiences. It helps your brain form new connections from new experiences so you’ll be better the next time you face a similar challenge.

And in this study, the participants who were put in that more positive, accepting mindset towards stress, they actually release higher levels of DHEA during their talk and after their talk. They actually entered a physiological stress state that makes it even more likely that they actually will learn and grow as a result of doing something that made them anxious, that was difficult. And getting that critical feedback in a moment and having to respond to it. Their bodies and their brains shifted into a stress state that would actually help them learn and grow.

And the next study I wanna tell you about was a study of job interview stress. And in this study, everyone came into the laboratory, about to go into a job interview for the job of their dreams. And the researchers were very interested in that feeling of anxiety and stress that happens right before you have that big opportunity, where you really want to Impress others and nail it. And so they told some participants to do what most people usually do when they’re feeling that kind of anxiety about their performance. So some participants were told to spend a few minutes thinking about how they were going to impress the interviewers. How were they going to show their strengths, right? How were they going to prove that they were the best person for this job?

But another group of participants got a very different instruction for that pre interview, high anxiety period. They were asked to think about how the job was connected to their values. They were asked when that moment of anxiety. Bring the context, the bigger context, of personal meaning into that experience of anxiety. And they were asked to think about how, if they got this job, it would be an opportunity to express those values. Why did they care so much about getting this job? And what could they do if they had that job that was personally meaningful? So they got put into that mindset of meaning, while they were experiencing anxiety.

And again in this study, the researchers were interested in two things, sort of their over all performance, and their stress physiology. And just like in the last study, this mindset of meaning didn’t make people less stressed out. They still felt anxious and stressed about the job interview. However, they did a lot better in the interview.

And the researchers actually video recorded the interviews and showed them all to unbiased raters afterwards, who rated each interviewee on different criteria. And the participant who had spent a few minutes putting their anxiety into a context of meaning. They actually were rated as being more inspiring and more uplifting than the participants who did that sort of normal, “Oh my gosh, how can I nail this?” mindset. And they also were rated as probably being better colleagues, right? So they were the kind of people that other people wanted to work with and wanted to hire. They felt inspired by them. In terms of their stress physiology, in this study, the researchers were interested in cortisol.

Because cortisol’s a stress hormone that is most associated with burnout, especially in the workplace. So people who have a stress response as characterized by higher levels of cortisol, are at greater risk of things like depression, and fatigue, and burnout, and claps and all those things that we want to avoid when we want to thrive in the workplace or thrive in roles that are important to us. And in this study, the participants who took that mindset of meaning, they actually release lower levels of cortisol during the interview and before the interview, despite the fact that they were still anxious and they were still stressed.

So they had a healthier physiological stress response without suppressing the stress, or reducing the stress, or running out of the office because they were so panicked about the interview. They didn’t reduce, they didn’t avoid the stress. They managed to transform the stress by bringing in a mindset of meaning.

And the last mindset intervention I wanna tell you about was a very different kind of stress study. In this study, people came into the experiment, and they were asked to spend a few moments trying to think of an experience in their lives that was difficult, that was still really painful to think about. And they were asked to think about that painful experience. And some participants were asked to think about it in the way that we usually ruminate on painful experiences. Just sit down by yourself and think about it. But other participants were invited to think about it from a very different point of view.

For the next two minutes, try to think of the experience as an opportunity to grow, to learn or to become stronger. And if this was an experience that was far in your past, would you take a moment to think about any benefits that you might of experienced as a result of going through that difficult and painful experience. And during the two minutes that everyone was thinking about whatever this heartache or this trauma was, they actually had electrodes attached to every participant’s face so that they could measure facial muscle expressions. And one of the first things they noticed is that when participants were thinking about something painful but they were doing it from a mindset of trying to see the good, in that stress.

They actually had less activation of the corrugator muscles of the forehead. Which are the muscles that furrow your brow and flatten your eyebrows in that classic, tell-tale signal of distress. So we already know now that embracing and accepting the good in stress can prevent stress related wrinkles which I know is very, very important.

But they also had electrodes on the zygomaticus muscle which lifts your cheeks into a smile. And those muscles where more activated, despite the fact that people were thinking about a very painful experience. And it wasn’t just the face that was happy, the participants who thought about the stressful experience from a benefit finding mindset toward that stress. They also reported greater levels of gratitude, of joy, and of forgiveness, and they actually felt less angry afterward, now having thought about it in this way.

And when you compare that to the participants who were just thinking about the painful experience the way you usually do, well those folks were more upset, they were more angry, they were sadder. All the negative emotions, and yet somehow thinking about the very same painful experience but from a mindset of trying to see that stress as an opportunity to grow and learn. It transformed their experiences. It transformed their emotions. And the physiology that researchers looked at was something called heart rate variability.

And heart rate variability is considered the classic physiological sign of emotional resilience. And on the slide, you can see two different types of heart rate variability. Over on the left you have constricted heart rate variability, which is associated with a lack of emotional resilience, right? The heart rate gets constricted in a narrow range. And on the other side that nice smooth green line, that’s greater heart rate variability. And that’s sort of a classic wave, suggesting that someone is in a state of emotional resilience. Their nervous system is balanced. It’s also a wave that is consistent with the emotions of gratitude and of joy. And the participants who thought about this painful experience the way we usually do, their heart rate variability got constricted.

The people who thought about the same kind of painful experience from a benefit finding mindset, their heart rate variability increased. That making contact with that point of pain was actually putting them in a physiological state of resilience and producing the biology of gratitude and joy.

So when I started this talk, I said I wanted to change your minds about stress. But what I really wanna do is simply empower you to understand that how you think about stress can make a difference in how that stress impacts everything from your physiology, your brain resilience, your well being to how well you’re able to do the things that matter to you. And the way to change your mindset is surprisingly simple, as you saw in those three interventions.

When you’re feeling stressed out, just make contact with the paradox of stress. I asked you at the beginning of this talk how many of you were hoping that tomorrow would be stressful, and there were like two hands front and center. And, of course, we don’t actually get to choose whether tomorrow is stressful or not. But I hope that if tomorrow is stressful for you, that you might actually think about this talk and you might take a moment to think about the paradox of stress. To recognize that a meaningful life is also a stressful life. And that you could use that stress not as a signal that there’s something wrong with you, a sign of weakness or a sign that you’re inadequate to your life, or a sign that your life is somehow fundamentally toxic and killing you.

But to actually use that same stress as a sign that something you care about is at stake. And to take that stress as an opportunity to think about what you care about. To view whatever the situation is as an opportunity to learn or to grow, or to choose to express your values. And most importantly to trust that you can handle the challenge. Thank you.

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