Is stress good for you?

How I use these ideas to help women in therapy.

Key Point

Acute stress is sometimes avoided because it's perceived as bad. However, our bodies are build to adapt and grow from this kind from this kind of stress. Our mindset about these experiences can change how our bodies respond. If you understand that we grow from challenging ourselves to move towards our values and do difficult thing, you will experience these events in a more positive light and this kind of stress will help you grow. Experiments show that our mindset about this changes how our bodies respond. 

The way you think about stress can make a difference in how it impacts you. Kelly McGonigal has been studying stress for the last decade and has written The Upside of Stress. In her work with stress, she has learned that our attempts to avoid and distract ourselves from stress often make our life less meaningful. She believes that if you believe acute situations of stress are good for you, their are many benefits.

I often find this is the case with acute stress. Stress that is short-term and challenging can lead to rewarding and helpful things. Many women in therapy struggle with avoiding and doing things that would make their lives meaningful because they perceive it as too stressful. Adapting the mindset that stress is good for you and can lead to positive things in line with your values is a key component of acceptance and commitment therapy. 

Dr. McGonigal discusses her favorite studies in illustrating how our mindset about stress can help us use it more adaptatively and be more positive. 

The Stress Paradox

In Dr McGonigal's  lectures, she will often cite the World Gallup Poll. This poll showed that several countries with the highest stress indexes also have the highest life expectancy, happiness index and GDP. Interestingly, the more people that thought the day before was stressful, the happier the country was, and the better the economy was! 

Studies have also found that when people are stressed, they feel more anger and sadness and more happiness and joy, and they laugh and learn more. Being engaged in life and your goals require stress. I indeed find this with my clients. 

Often time in an attempt to avoid stress, we will truncate our life and, at the same time, will limit ourselves from feeling the emotions of joy and happiness. She notes that the same situations that give rise to stress give joy, satisfaction, and meaning. 

GOOD MENTAL HEALTH TIP People with deeply meaningful lives have more stress.

I believe that although some stress can be positive, it's essential to know how to balance positive or good stress with unnecessary stress, not in line with your values, and won't bring you closer to a meaningful life. Reframing stress as valuable and positive may be a coping strategy if you avoid things that would make your life more meaningful. In other cases, it might be a kind of toxic positivity. For example, I do not believe that the stress of racism, or loss, or traumatic life circumstances is " good for you" Although people have different ways of processing their own personal traumas. It can be demeaning and toxic to have someone say this was " good for you".

Three studies Dr. McGonigal references when discusses the positive effects of stress are below. She is a big advocate of taking a positive view of stress and promoting the idea that it is good for you. 

1. One study at Columbia business school illustrates how people prompted to view stress more positively can function more adaptively when faced with an acutely stressful experience.   

 A group of people were divided into two sections, and both were expected to give a talk. One is told that stress is harmful, the other that it is beneficial. Both of these groups were given some stressful critical feedback during their talk. The group that was told stress is helpful was more confident, determined, and excited. Additionally, they released DHEA, a neurosteroid that helps your brain grow from stress and new experiences. The group prompted to view stress as problematic and harmful didn't release the DHEA or have these positive experiences associated with this talk. 

2. A group of participants was prepped for a job interview. Group one was told to think about their values before the interview. Group 2 was told nothing. Group one was rated more highly by interviewers as being inspiring to colleagues and also releases less cortisol before and during the interview

3. Lastly, two groups of people were prompted to think about experiences in the past that were difficult

Group one was prompted to think about how they grew from the experience, group two to ruminate on it. Group one showed positive results in this study. 

Group one showed less activation of the furrowed brow, which indicates stress more activation of smile muscles. Additionally, the heart rate variability was measured of the two groups. Heart rate variability measures emotional resilience. The first group, which was ruminating on the stressful event showed—constricted lack of emotional resilience. The second group focused on the growth from stress showed expansive heart rate variability, indicating they had greater emotional resilience


How you think about stress  can make a difference in how you handle and experience it. Experiment with these ideas and see if it is helpful in your own life. 


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