3 secrets from Kelly McGonigal that transform stress from a vice to a virtue

Aug 01 , 2017

ATDMainStage.jpgStress is something we deal with every day. Some of us seem to have more stress in our lives than others. If you’re like most people, you likely see stress as a negative. People correlate being stressed to feeling overwhelmed, not having enough energy, or pushing a boulder up hill.

Stress doesn’t have to be the bad guy. You can make a mental shift to use stress as fuel to feed your mind and body to conquer your daily tasks and life goals.  The upside of stress is a point of view refined by Kelly McGonigal keynote speaker on Day 2 at ATD 2017 (The Association for Talent Development’s annual conference, held this past year in Atlanta, GA).

The essence of her keynote was this: you can turn stress from a negative into a positive through a simple perspective shift. Instead of perceiving stress as an enemy, view it as a friend. By simply shifting the way you think about stress, you can use stress to fuel your energy to accomplish goals.

Granted, being a keynote speaker at ATD is pretty amazing, but in McGonigal’s case, it is well earned. McGonigal’s achievements are pretty exhaustive. As a health psychologist, McGonigal published The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. McGonigal also gave a TED talk on the benefits of stress, which has achieved over 14 million views. 14 million views. McGonigal knows her stuff and people can’t get enough of it.

Let’s explore the magic behind the upside of stress by looking at three distinct ways to leverage stress to your advantage.

Mental shift 1: Perceive stress as energy you can harness.

Stress has a bad rep. People often consider it to be toxic and a reaction to a threat. But while you’re mentally psyching out, stress is causing your body to bring more glucose to your muscles and more oxygen to your brain. This reaction makes you stronger and think more clearly if you can make the shift to use it to your benefit.  

When we get stressed out for the worse, we tense up. That tension causes inflammation, preventing our muscles and brain to perform at their peak.

The shift is simple: view the response your body is giving you as rising to the challenge. Instead of your blood constricting, relax into the challenge to enable better blood flow and clearer thinking. Then, direct this energy toward the goal to fuel your best performance.

Mental shift 2: Let stress help you increase your resilience.

Stress can help you to keep calm in a crisis, but only if you practice. The US military understands the power of stress as a resilience exercise. The army school is known to put their soldiers in exceptionally stressful situations to grow their resilience factor.

According to McGonigal, there’s a biological reason why our resilience grows after a stressful situation. Neuropeptide Y and DHEA are two chemicals that your body releases under times of stress. Neuropeptide Y is associated with reducing anxiety and stress, reducing pain perception, and lowering blood pressure. DHEA is a neurosteroid, which helps your brain to grow after having a difficult challenge.

In essence, after a stress experience, your brain can grow stronger and more able to deal with additional stress in the future. When you perceive stress as an opportunity to grow, you become hopeful and engaged.

If you notice the mental hijacking happening to you, don’t panic. Instead, relax into the stress, breathe slowly, and let your brain do its job.

Mental shift 3: When under stress, it’s OK to reach out to others.

Connecting with others as a stress response is the most underrated aspect of stress. When we get stressed out, we fight an urge to connect with others around us. But we shouldn’t.

Stress makes us kinder, more social, and more likely to reach out to others. We often reach out to other people offering to help or stating that we need help ourselves. Just like during emergencies, there are always helpers. These heroes tap their connector reflex better and more visibly than those not possessing this trait.

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Biologically speaking, our bodies emit more oxytocin, which is a chemical that enhances social bonding and facilitates social connection. When levels of this chemical are high, we want to be around people, help others, and our emotional intelligence increases.

We may prefer to reach out to people we trust, but we can also connect with strangers. Essentially, oxytocin nudges us to go outside of ourselves and connect with others to gain courage and motivation.

As we connect, we are able to quiet some fears and increase our hope, making us more optimistic toward the stressor.

How can you make the shift to better connect with others? First, when under stress, acknowledge that the stressor is bigger than you and you may not be the only one in need. Give into the temptation to connect with others. And find a social connection to obtain the benefits to have less fear and more hope.

Last, but certainly not least, you want to reflect on your stress response. You will have opportunities throughout the day, week, and year to practice a positive mindset when it comes to stress. According to McGonigal, by thinking about stress positively you actually do live a healthier life for a longer period of time. 

Want to learn more about stress? Check out our ebook on 7 things you’ll discover about stress through a Stress Quotient.

About the Author

Candice Frazer