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Book Summary – The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It

Do you believe that stress is bad and should be avoided? If so, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal is out to change your mind. In this book, she presents scientific evidence that stress can improve your performance, physical and psychological health. In this free version of The Upside of Stress summary, we’ll outline the biology of stress, and how you can use various strategies and interventions to thrive under pressure. Do get more details from our complete book summary bundle in text, infographic, and audio formats!

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Introduction: The Upside of Stress

Like many others, Kelly McGonigal used to think that stress is toxic. However, after researching stress in detail, she realized stress is harmful only when you believe it is. In this book, she shares a wide range of empirical research, interviews with scientists and researchers, experiments and interventions to support her conclusions and recommendations.

For example, 30,000 adults in the U.S. were asked if they thought stress hurt their health. 80 years later, those with high stress levels were 43% more likely have died—only if they had believed that stress was bad for them. Those who experienced high stress but didn’t see it as harmful actually had the lowest risks of death. In short, stress alone doesn’t kill people; the danger comes from the combination of stress and the belief that it’s harmful.

Based on her research, Kelly McGonigal combined psychology, neuroscience, and biology to create the “New Science of Stress” course being taught at Stanford. This book is based on the insights and strategies from the course, presented in 2 parts:
1. How to change the way you think about stress; and
2. On-the-spot strategies to apply when you’re stressed.

We’ll now outline some of the key insights from the book. Do get our complete version of The Upside of Stress summary (get full 15-page summary here) for more details, application tips and examples.

Part 1: Rethinking Stress

The first step to transforming stress is to change how you think about it. The word “stress” is used by people to describe everything from a minor frustration to a major trauma. McGonigal defines stress as “what arises when something you care about is at stake.”

The Power of Mindsets

Mindsets are your core beliefs about how the world works, e.g. “the world is a dangerous place”, “money can’t buy you happiness”, or “people can change”. Your mindset affects how you think, feel and act, which influence your outcomes, to further reinforce your mindset. Mindset interventions are similar to placebos, except the effect is longer-lasting. Even a short, one-time mindset intervention can catalyze changes to produce a snowball effect with far-reaching consequences.

In our full The Upside of Stress summary (click here for full summary), we’ll cover:
• More research studies that illustrate how our beliefs can affect our outcomes in the real world (from weight-loss to aging and social belonging);
• The roles of stress hormones dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and cortisol, and what’s the “growth index”;
• How your thoughts/beliefs about stress affect your physical and biological realities; and
• Some background to understand how stress got it’s bad name.

Digest these powerful tips in minutes with our summary & infographic!

Stress as a Natural Resource

Stress has long been associated with the primal “fight-or-flight response”. However, it’s not our only response to stress. Humans respond to stress in complex ways, depending on (i) the nature of the stress, (ii) your past experiences, and (iii) your interpretation of the situation.

Instead of thinking of stress as a “bad” thing, it’s time to realize that stress-related hormones and responses are Nature’s way to help us cope with difficult situations.

The Upside of Stress summary - Stress as Resource

When you’re stressed, the body responds in several ways:

• It unlocks energy and heightens your senses/focus to help you cope with the situation. In extreme cases, it triggers the Fight-or-Flight Response. In moderate cases, it triggers the Challenge Response (which is the state we’re in when we’re in “flow”);

• It triggers your desire for social connection (the Tend-and-Befriend Response) so you can get the support you need; and

• It helps your brain/body to recover, learn and grow.

In fact, stress goes hand-in-hand with a meaningful life. People who’re busier tend to be happier, and people with a sense of purpose tend to live longer.  So, stress isn’t a sign that something’s wrong with your life; it’s a sign that you’re meaningfully engaged in things you care about.

Do get our complete 15-page summary for (i) a breakdown of the biochemical changes, symptoms, roles and effects associated with each of the stress responses above, and (ii) research studies to show the relationship between stress and happiness/well-being.

Get our full summary and infographic now!

Using Interventions to Change your Stress Mindset

Your stress mindset (whether you belief stress is harmful or helpful) tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you think of stress as a resource and actively confront your challenges, you develop new skills and resources to improve your results, competence and confidence in a virtuous cycle. When you deny or avoid the stressful challenges, the reverse happens.

In the book, McGonigal shares a wide range of research studies to show how stress mindset interventions work with amazing short-term and long-term effects. Do get the highlights in our full version of the The Upside of Stress summary, including specific interventions and exercises to help you (i) rethink your stress response, (ii) reflect on the link between stress, values and meaning in life, and (iii) start to reshape your mindset in profound ways.  These exercises can be applied individually or in groups.

Part 2: Transforming Stress

Even if you successfully transform how you think about stress, you’ll still encounter stress in your daily life. This is where the strategies in this section come in–to help you transform real-life stress into a useful resource for performance enhancement.

During times of stress, pause to consider what you need most, e.g. to survive, perform, connect, or learn. Your body will respond based on your expectations. In our full book summary, we’ll dive into specific strategies/approaches you can use to:

(i) Transform threats to challenges: The key is to manage your perception and reaction so you trigger the Challenge Response for performance enhancement (instead of the Flight-or-Flight response), and convert anxiety to excitement.

(ii) Build resilience through social connections. Learn the steps and interventions you can use to activate your Tend-and-Befriend response (instead of retreating to selfish or aggressive behaviors). This triggers brain activities that make you more social, brave and smart, to cope with stress and challenges.

(iii) Growing from adversity. No one wishes for trauma, yet pain and suffering is inevitable in life. Find out how you can make the most of a bad situation, and use trauma to activate your strengths, values, and helpful responses to bring good outcomes.

Other Details in “The Upside of Stress”

Stress can be harmful or helpful, depending on how you choose to see it. It’s the most harmful if you (i) feel inadequate to handle it, (ii) isolate yourself from others and (iii) feel helpless or burdened by it. However, when you embrace it as a natural human resource, it can be a source of confidence, courage, connection, and meaning. The book comes with a wide range of empirical research, studies and interventions to elaborate on the concepts outlined in this summary. Do get a copy of the book for the full details, get our The Upside of Stress book summary bundle for an overview of the ideas, examples and tips, or visit Kelly McGonigal’s website.

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