Kelly McGonigal – The Upside of Stress

DrKellyMcGonigal (2)

Today my guest is Dr. Kelly McGonigal. Kelly is a health psychologist and award-winning lecturer at Stanford University. A leading expert on the mind-body relationship, her work integrates the latest findings of psychology, neuroscience and medicine with contemplative practices of mindfulness and compassion from the traditions of Buddhism and yoga. She is the author of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good For You, And How To Get Good At It, where she highlights new research indicating that stress can, in fact, make us stronger, smarter, and happier—if we learn how to embrace it.

In today’s episode, Kelly and I spoke about:

  • Her definition of stress and how it can actually be a benefit
  • The research surrounding stress and the idea of transforming stress instead of reducing it
  • Examples of how to transform the way we think about stress
  • Embracing the ‘Flow State’
  • How our culture of fear of discomfort holds us back.

Here is my conversation “The Upside of Stress” with the intelligent and revolutionary: Kelly McGonigal.


Well, hello and welcome, Kelly McGonigal! How are you?

Kelly McGonigal: I’m doing great! Thanks for having me back.

CP: Great. It’s always so fabulous to talk to you and to connect with you. I’m super excited to get into this new material. One of the things I thought we would just launch in with was, the last time we talked, you had launched the book The Willpower Instinct, and you were working on the psychology and the science behind internal change. And I’m curious to see, just in your own life, how this work on stress has evolved from your first book and what your journey has been.

KM: Yes. So when I think about how all of the work that I’ve been doing—the willpower work, the stress work, and my work at the Stanford Center for Compassion, trying to help people cultivate greater compassion—I realize that everything I’ve been doing for the last 15 years or so has been about trying to help people accept inner experiences or life circumstances that they can’t really control. Whether that’s dealing with cravings in terms of addiction, difficult emotions like anxiety and anger or grief, or even how I got started, which was working with people with chronic pain, and finding a way to accept pain that you can’t fix or change or control.

And the funny thing is that, because of my training in psychology and medicine, I’ve kept one thing outside of that circle of acceptance, and that was stress. Somehow stress remains that inner experience, that enemy, that really was toxic, that we really did need to reduce or avoid or manage. And it took me until, really, just a couple of years ago to realize that everything that I’ve been saying about the best way to deal with and transform other difficult inner experiences—like pain and anxiety and grief—the same applied to stress. It’s a big mistake to spend your energy trying to suppress or trying to avoid, just because you find that experience distressing.

The same principles that I recommend for these other difficult inner experiences, of accepting and then transforming them, of using them as a catalyst for meaning or for connection with others, that same principle [applies] to stress. And it really took some of the science that was coming out in the last five years or so about stress mindsets to really confront me and realize that I had somehow created this enemy out of stress that was not serving people. We’re all stressed, and I think the idea that we could ever avoid it is probably fundamentally flawed.

CP: What is stress? I mean, you reference difficult emotions, and then there’s the whole physiology behind it. I’m curious to see what you’re calling “stress.” Is it a physiology thing? Or is it—

KM: Yes, it’s a tough question, because we use the word “stress” to basically describe everything we don’t want to experience. We will use the word “stress” to describe a delay in traffic that irritates us. We’ll use the word “stress” to describe the pressures of parenting or work. We’ll use the word “stress” to describe our racing heart or our own anger and anxiety. And we even use the word “stress” as a synonym for “trauma.”

That makes stress very interesting, because fundamentally, it seems to describe the relationship that we have toward things that we’re experiencing, a relationship where we’re basically saying, “This is unwanted. I reject this.” And then we use the label “stress” to basically tag the things in our life that we don’t want. And I actually think that that’s what makes stress so rich for reinterpretation.

So the definition that I use for “stress” is much narrower, because I think that the way that we use the word actually isn’t helpful. We’re tagging basically everything in our lives as fundamentally toxic or unworkable. So instead, I like a much simpler definition of “stress” that puts the focus more on our reaction and our resources. And I talk about stress as being what arises when something we care about is at stake. It’s what arises in you. It includes your thoughts, it includes your emotions, it includes the body’s response to stress, the stress hormones it releases to try to help you do something about the fact that someone you care about is at stake. And it’s basically the way that we choose to respond to those challenges, which are those circumstances.

When we use that definition of stress, as what arises—our thoughts, our emotions, our desires, our motivation, and our body’s response to stress—it actually becomes much more clear that stress is quite helpful, that it really is a resource. And when we stop talking about stress as something that we’re being victimized by, and sort of reclaim stress as an instinct and a capacity for dealing with challenges in our lives—that’s what I’m encouraging people to embrace.

That’s the upside of stress: putting our attention on our own resources and the fact that human beings have a natural capacity to respond to challenges and to transform difficulties into growth, learning, meaning, and even connection with others.

CP: Tell us about the research around this. I’m curious to see if that awareness, or what you call embracing the stress and really facing it head-on, not ignoring it, not pushing it away. So if I open my arms to stress, is there research that shows me that I actually am reducing my stress? What are the results?

KM: So language is key. Not “reducing” stress, but “transforming” stress. And there actually is a growing body of research—actually, I think that language really matters. It’s one of the reasons that I wrote this book. Because if we talk about reducing stress rather than embracing it and transforming it, we end up doing things that are actually quite destructive, like deciding we need to get drink because we can’t deal with our feelings. Or deciding that we need to take a less stressful job because we can’t cope with the pressures that we face.

So rather than talking about “reducing,” I really like to talk about “transforming.” And the research is growing that how you think about stress and your relationship to stress can really determine the effects that stress has on your health and your well-being. Some of the core, foundational research came out of Yale, where researchers asked people how they thought about stress: “Do you view it as fundamentally negative and something to be avoided? Or do you view it as something that is fundamentally positive and should be utilized and embraced?”

And those researchers found that you can predict the effect of stress on people’s lives by the attitude they hold, that people who view stress as positive are less likely to become depressed during periods of high stress, they’re in better physical health, they’re more productive at work. And research beyond that laboratory shows that they’re better able to find meaning in their stress, they have better relationships with others.

And what really caught my eye was the research showing that how you think about stress [can] even impact something like cardiovascular disease and how long you live. People who really hold that negative view of stress are more like to experience the toxic effects of stress we expect, whereas people who do not hold that harmful view of stress [almost] seem to be protected by the presence of stress in their lives.

The one site I mentioned in my TED talk, [which] sort of kick-started this book, found that people who have very stressful lives but don’t view stress as harmful are the most likely to be alive at the end of this eight-year study that they looked at. Whereas people who have very stressful lives and viewed it as very harmful to their health were the most likely to die. And the presence of stress was not the determinate in that. It was really the mindset.

So there’s all this research that’s suggesting how you think about stress matters. And what’s most exciting to me is a lot of studies coming out showing, “OK, how the heck do you change your mind about stress? Because we’ve all been told that stress is toxic and we should be reducing it.” And there are a lot of really small mindset shifts we can make in our daily lives that actually transform how we experience stress.

CP: Can you give us some examples of those? God, I’m taking notes here, this is handy.

KM: Sure. Well, one of my favorites, as somebody who experiences anxiety—we all have different flavors of stress that are most familiar. Some people tend to get angry when they’re under stress. Some people get paralyzed. Some people get anxious. I get anxious. And research coming originally out of Harvard—the lead researcher is Jeremy Jamieson, he’s now at the University of Rochester. He came up with this mindset intervention of taking people who deal with anxiety—whether it’s just students who are facing a difficult exam all the way to people with diagnosed anxiety disorders—and he told them that anxiety is basically energy.

When your heart is pounding, when you’re breathing faster, when you’re sweating, they’re all signs that your body is trying to give you energy. And research shows that energy, that arousal that you’re feeling of anxiety, can actually help you. It can help you do better. It can help you rise to the challenge. Which is, by the way, completely true, despite the fact that most people think you need to be calm in order to do your best. The biological research suggests that that’s not true, that adrenaline pretty much always enhances performance, even if you feel it as anxiety.

So he told people that, and said, “So, when you feel anxious, try to remember that. Try to remember it’s energy. It can actually help you.” And he’s shown that that helps people perform better under pressure, whether it’s students who are taking a difficult exam, whether it’s women who are facing stereotype threats and violence, whether it’s people with social anxiety disorder having to give a public speech and receive critical feedback about how they present themselves—which, of course, is their worst nightmare.

In all of these different scenarios, people who embrace their anxiety and view it as energy, in the moment that they are feeling the anxiety, they do better and their physical stress response changes. They don’t become less stressed—they actually all have higher levels of adrenaline than people who are trying to suppress their anxiety.

CP: Oh, interesting.

KM: But they also have lower levels of inflammation, which is one type of stress response, usually the more harmful or toxic side of the stress response. So even as their being fully energized by stress, they’re not experiencing the inflammation, they’re not experiencing the blood vessel constriction that often goes along with an unhealthy stress response.

And that’s what I mean by transforming stress. If you focus all your energy trying to calm down, you actually lose the benefits of stress. And that’s just one example, one flavor of stress. In the book, I talk about looking at all the ways that we experience stress. Sometimes it’s anger, sometimes it’s despair, sometimes it’s wanting to give up. And each one of those responses to stress can be transformed by changing the way that you think about stress in that moment.

CP: When I hear you say “thinking about stress”—first of all, I think this is fabulous. Such a turnaround from pushing stress away, and I want to get into that a little bit more. But there’s something that, in me, when I think, just thinking, because I’m so future-oriented, and I, like you, have more [of] the anxiety side of the stress, that I find the thinking—God, if I think too much, it just keeps going, it’s a spiral. So are there any tips on that? Or perhaps maybe a more bodily approach as an alternative to us overthinkers? Is it really just staying in that thinking zone and re-creating imagery?

KM: Well, it’s both. As you know, I’m a mindfulness researcher and mindfulness teacher, which is not inconsistent with the idea of embracing stress. We all know that “mindfulness” is not a synonym for “calming down,” despite the way the media talks about it. But I think one of the core lessons of mindfulness is, we’re always trying to cultivate the ability to choose the focus of our attention. And when something is really capturing your attention, it’s often because it matters. So if you’re worrying about the future, it’s because something you care about matters. And I think it’s a mistake to try to push it out of your mind through distractions that have nothing to do with what you care about and have nothing to do with meaning.

And one of the mindset interventions that I really like is, in those moments when you’re worrying about something, to recognized, “OK, worrying is a sign that I care about something. It’s a sign of meaning.” And by the way, research shows that people who worry more also have more meaning in their lives, that they tend to go together. People with less meaningful lives worry less. So it can be helpful to remember that, that there’s a strong relationship between meaning and worrying. People who have more in their lives that they care about are going to inevitably worry more. That seems to be true.

So in that moment when the worrying is happening, rather than letting your attention go to worst case scenarios, or the things that you can’t control, some researchers have asked people to think about why they care in that moment. What is meaningful to you about this? What value is connected to this? Family, wanting to make a difference, wanting to grow, wanting to do well—whatever the core value is, put your attention on that, why it’s meaningful and why it matters, even for a brief moment. And that’s been shown to make it more likely that your worrying will be transformed into something productive rather than something that makes you feel stuck or that is a drain on your energy.

So you’re worrying, and you think, “Well, the reason I care about this is because this role is really meaningful to me. Or this relationship is really meaningful to me.” People are then more likely to be able to see what the choice is in that moment, that it’s consistent with the meaning or with the value. “Because this relationship matters to me, I’m going to make the phone call now instead of just ruminating over it and worrying about it and thinking about what I said yesterday or thinking about how they’re going to respond.” Or I’ll take an action to get started on a project rather than just worry about whether or not I’ll be able to do it or do it well. That’s, again, a mindset shift that basically transforms the function of worrying without having to suppress it or get rid of it.

CP: You know what I love about that? You do have a chapter in the book where you say, “Connect: How Caring Creates Resilience.” And that just—what you said about values, in the moment when you return to your values, you feel more love and compassion. It’s sort of tying into you former work—or, whatever, it’s not your former work.

KM: My current work is compassion, yes.

CP: Yes, that’s your lifelong work! But it’s just so interesting. When you bring back values, it brings up compassion, and we just go big picture and it feels like we do become more resilient.

KM: Yes. I call that “finding you’re bigger than self” mindset. One of the things that can make stress less helpful and more distressing is sometimes it makes our focus very, very narrow on ourselves. And that whole chapter on how caring creates resilience is actually about how, when we shift our focus to something bigger than ourselves—whether it’s taking care of a human being or a pet or a plant that we love, or whether it’s thinking about our biggest values, our priorities in life, whether it’s thinking about helping out a stranger—those moments of shifting to something bigger than ourselves actually changes the chemistry of our stress response in a way that increases [what] I call the “biology of hope and courage.”

It’s literally inhibiting the fear system of the brain while increasing the systems of the brain that experience positive motivation, that make you want to take positive risks, that give you energy, that give you what I call in The Willpower [Instinct] “I want” power and “I will” power, that combination of caring and the willingness to do something even if it’s difficult. So the research shows that when we are connected to something bigger than ourselves, we have more of that “will” power and that “want” power.

And what’s really fascinating is that often stress can point us in that direction, particularly for women. Often our own experience of stress makes us want to care or to connect. And part of my message in the book is that we should really trust that instinct, that the best thing to do under stress isn’t always to tighten your focus and try to protect yourself or defend yourself or think about how you can control the way that you come across to others, that opening up to some broader, bigger-than-self mindset will actually paradoxically help you deal with your own struggles. And I think a lot of women have that direct experience.

CP: Oh my God, it’s such a paradox. Because on one hand, a lot of the stress is self-induced, because we’re such perfectionists and we care so much, so if we care so much then it sounds like, based on our desire for a meaningful life, there’s going to be some stress. And then we beat ourselves up for having the stress and not being able to handle it. It just keeps going in a cycle. But really, if we come back to the values, there’s more of a tender heart there, and that big picture just feels like it breaks the hamster wheel, in a way.

KM: Yes. And, you know, one of the things that I think my big purpose for this particular book—with The Willpower [Instinct], I wanted to help people make changes in their lives, but I also really, really wanted people to know that they weren’t alone in struggling to make those changes. That was my deal breaker. That’s what I really wanted people to understand, that if you’re human, you’re going to experience challenges related to willpower.

And with this book, the same sort of basic truth that I hope people can feel at that level, at that heart level, is that there is no version of your life that is both meaningful and full of growth and full of love that also happens to be stress-free. And women so often think that the stress in their lives means that they are failing at life in some way, and the message that stress is always harmful, and that we should always be avoiding or reducing stress, really amplifies that feeling. Like, “I must be inadequate. If I experience parenting as stressful, there must be something wrong with me as a parent. If I feel overwhelmed or pressured at work, I must not be cut out for this job. It’s too much for me,” and on and on. We use stress as a signal that there’s something wrong with us or with our lives. And I think that’s a direct consequence of this overwhelming messaging that we get, that stress is a signal that we’re doing something wrong.

CP: Well, you know, the other thing is, especially in the New Age thinking, this term “being in the flow, when you’re in the flow nothing’s difficult and it all just kind of works”—

KM: Did you know that the flow response is a stress response? I apologize for interrupting.

CP: No! Do it!

KM: It’s so funny that, if you look at people who are in a flow state, they experience an increase of lots of stress hormones. That is a version of the stress response, even though people don’t experience it as distressing. It’s basically the definition of ideal stress, and your body [sent out] a stress response to help you be in the flow.

CP: OK, so let’s break this down, because I’ve always tried to get in the flow, but I’m [always] segregating: “The stress needs to leave for me to get into the flow.” I always battle that kind of thinking. So say that again, slowly. [Laughs]

KM: Another word for it, actually, is “challenge response.” So the definition of a flow state is when you are confronted with a challenge that you feel like you have the resources to meet, and you take some kind of pleasure or meaning out of meeting that challenge. That’s basically the definition of flow. And when you look at what’s going on in people’s brains and bodies when they report having that experience, you see an increase in certain stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol—the same ones that we tend to fear are actually helping people experience that positive flow state and meet the challenge. You see increased activity in areas of the brain that are associated with the kind of focused attention that one experiences when you have a stress response and are trying to rise to the challenge.

What you tend not to see are certain aspects of a stress response when we feel we are completely threatened, paralyzed, or overwhelmed. The reason people like a flow state is because you sense the meaning and you also sense your own adequacy to the task. And as soon as you introduce the sense that you are inadequate to the challenge, then you start seeing a threat response, you start seeing things like heightened inflammation, and other physical changes that aren’t really healthy in the long term.

But they’re both stress responses, and one of the reasons I’m so passionate now about how helping people embrace stress is it seems like when you embrace stress, you actually are creating that sense of adequacy that makes it more likely that you’re going to experience something like a flow state or challenge state, or that you’ll be able to tend and befriend under stress, rather than retreat or become isolated.

CP: I love that you used the word “challenge.” Just the word “stress,” it’s just been so negative, and I love that you’re sort of re-creating that. But just to get at that a little bit more, you have a couple sections in the book where you’re talking about turning threats into challenges. How does one do that when they’re in the grips of—

KM: Yes, you can tell I’m kind of jumping the gun because I’m so excited about this.

CP: No, do it, yes!

KM: There are a lot of really simple mindset resets that scientists have looked at and psychologists have looked at that help you do this. I’m just going to rattle off a few. I think you can get a sense of what they have in common. They basically are all about trying to reflect on the resources that you have available to you.

So one is, as I mentioned earlier, to view your own stress response as energy and as a resource, and that seems to turn threat responses into challenge responses. Another is to think about your own values as a strength—whether that’s a spiritual faith, whether it’s a quality like compassion or courage, something that you value in yourself—and bring that to mind, and then that becomes a felt sense of resource that can change a threat response into a challenge response. Prayer and meditation have both been shown to do the same thing. I think that one of the things that is so wonderful about mindfulness meditation is it basically creates a sense of fundamental OK-ness in any moment that actually makes it more likely that you will experience a challenge response, even in situations that you would never choose for yourself.

Other examples, some really fun ones, are listening to a song that is uplifting has been shown to be helpful to do this, whether [it’s] gospel or hip hop or a Broadway show tune—anything that makes you feel empowered and inspired can actually shift a threat into a challenge response. Thinking about people in your life who support you [has] been shown to do this as well.

Basically, it’s all about taking a moment to connect to the resources that are present. And in different situations, different resources will feel relevant. But in that very quick mindset moment, where you’re able to think about the resources you bring, it can have a really profound effect on what’s happening in your brain and body in a way that completely changes the way that you’re able to cope with the situation.

CP: Those are so great. And you’ve also talked about thinking about the values and also the power of connecting. So there are lots of tools here in the moment, or over time, where I can change my viewpoint. And then what? How can we light the creative fire under this so that we’re making the most out of it?

KM: So one of the things we know about mindset and interventions is that they have a naturally upward spiraling effect on people’s lives. A lot of these studies have done very short mindset interventions that would be basically less than the equivalent of somebody listening to this conversation that we’re having now. This is already a mindset intervention for people who are listening. Something as simple as being told to think differently about stress in one stressful moment has this amazing catalyst effect where it automatically changes the way that you think about yourself and the way that you think about adversity that you face in the future. And that’s one of the most amazing things about this research.

So even as we are thinking, “Well, there’s got to be something else that I can do. There should be something more. I can dig deeper into this.” The actual science suggests that it’s a lot simpler than that, that one or two experiences of connecting to these mindset shifts has such a powerful effect that they snowball on their own. And trusting that process is sort of a leap of faith. But I really want to encourage people that that’s really what it’s about: one or two times, in moments of stress, try on a different point of view, and some studies show that years later, it is continuing to have a profound effect on people’s personal success [and] physical health and happiness.

The other thing that I think, for people who are really interested in mindset shift, is to start practicing mindset mindfulness. We get a lot of messages about stress and what it means. In any given day, I might run across 10 articles online that are telling me that my stress means that my life is toxic and my life is killing me and I should stop everything and try to deal with that stress. Really start paying attention to how those messages affect us, and the messages that we’re sending to other people in the way that we talk about stress or the way that we try to avoid other people who are stressed out. We tell other people that they need to calm down.

You can apply that basic quality of mindfulness—you’re starting to pay attention to the presense of mindset in your life in the same way that you would for any other kind of belief or attitude that you are interested in changing, and simply bringing awareness to that. Like with so many different processes of change, just bringing awareness to it in itself can be transformative.

CP: You know, what I like about this is—there’s a Buddhist teacher, of course you know him, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, used to always say, “Lean into the sharp points,” that there’s so much value in that, when you actually have something that’s sharp and pointy and it’s needling you to actually lean in, and there’s wisdom there. But also, I just think, as a culture, we don’t do that because we fear discomfort. We just avoid it. Any kind of discomfort. So what you’re asking to be done here is going to take a little effort. [Laughs]

KM: Yes. It definitely does. And speaking of Buddhist practices, one of my favorite practices for years has been tonglen, which is a meditation practice of breathing in discomfort and pain and suffering, trusting that you can transform it, and choosing to breathe out whatever the healing opposite would be, whether it’s freedom from suffering, compassion, courage, strength, faith. You breathe in the bad stuff and you breathe out the healing opposite.

It wasn’t until about a year ago, leading a retreat on these practices, that it finally hit me that all of this stress mindset research is basically one bit tonglen practice. And that everything that makes people resist tonglen as a practice—that they don’t trust that they can transform suffering into something good, they want to avoid discomfort, avoid pain, they want to defend against it, all those things that make tonglen initially so hard and eventually so transformative—is the same thing as the stress mindset research. It requires trusting your own capacity to be with discomfort and transform it into something better.

And the science says that, actually, humans have that natural capacity, that our own suffering is often a catalyst for growth and meaning and compassion. And I think the thing that the latest science is really adding is that it’s especially true if we choose to view it that way.

CP: That’s the key to all of this. It’s really the viewpoint. I love the mindset intervention. That has to be a coined phrase at this point. It’s so good. But that’s what required. The vigilance to the tapes that we keep playing in our heads, the negative stories that keep running through the mindsets. We need to interrupt them and disrupt them.

KM: And transform them.

CP: Yes! That’s why this is so powerful. In so many ways, it’s so much more simpler than cutting out something [from] our lives or avoiding or changing jobs or making big changes.

KM: It’s a lot simpler than having to get rid of stress.

CP: Right!

KM: And even one mindset exercise I sometimes have people contemplate is to list everything in your life that’s stressful, and then imagine a life without any of the roles and relationships that give rise to those stressful experiences. Because people often have this other point of view, like it’s possible to have those roles, those goals, and those relationships, and just not have stress, when the reality is, if you want to get rid of the stress of parenting, you need to get rid of your kid. That sounds awful, but it’s not like there’s the stress-free version of it that’s available.

And, of course, there are things you can do to get rid of unnecessary stress that is completely divorced from meaning. That is possible, sometimes. If you do that mindset exercise of thinking about getting rid of everything in your life that gives rise to stress, I think most people realize it actually is quite ridiculous to talk about reducing stress.

CP: Well, I mean, I for one, as we’re wrapping up here, I’m excited to put a lot of this into practice, and I actually feel so much better about my life!

KM: Great! Good! Well then, I guess my foundational goal is a bit of a success. Because I really hope that that’s part of what this mindset shift can do for people: to feel more empowered and more inspired by their own lives, even when the lives include uncertainty and difficulty and circumstances that we might not choose.

CP: So great. So great to have you again, and this is going to be a real gift to our audience, so thank you so much, Kelly.

KM: Thank you!