A Stanford psychologist has a simple mental exercise for tackling student stress

More than meets the eye.
More than meets the eye.
Image: Upsplash/Larm Marsh
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Stress can be debilitating, paralyzing, and generally bad for our health.

It can also motivate us to get organized, try new things, and push to higher levels of achievement.

Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford, thinks we spend too much time worrying about stress and not enough harnessing it to learn and grow.

“If I am stressed, it means I care,” McGonigal said on School’s In, a Stanford podcast. “Stress can activate strength.”

She thinks this matters for students, in particular, who appear to be under unprecedented levels of stress. Parents should, of course, help kids reduce the sources of stress—not over-scheduling them or excessively focusing on grades and test scores—but they can also dramatically reframe stress, away from avoiding it at all costs to trying to manage the bad and leverage the good.

Whatever the challenge—inviting a new friend over, trying out for a sports team, or starting a new school—the anxiety that comes with stress looks and feels a lot like excitement. So we should think of it that way—as excitement—she said on the podcast. Your heart is pounding because you want to do well and your body is helping you to rise to the challenge. ”We will do it even if our hearts are racing,” she suggested parents tell their kids.

If we only think of stress as toxic, this magnifies its toxic effects. If we see that it can have positive outcomes—preparing us to perform—we might be able to lose some of the meta-stress, the stress about stressing. Students, for example, can focus on the root of the stress (preparing for the test) and not the self-flagellation around what the stress might mean (“I’m not smart enough”).

She is quick to point out that plenty of life’s stresses cannot be willed away: poverty, abuse, and neglect cannot be mitigated with reframing.

But other types of stress can be.

Confidence under pressure

McGonigal cites research that shows that people who reported more stress were 43% more likely to die prematurely; however, that was only for those who believed stress was toxic. For those who didn’t think stress was bad for your health, experiencing a lot of stress did not have negative health outcomes. “When you change your mind about stress you can change your body’s response to stress,” she said in a TED talk.

She describes different kinds of stress responses: threat or challenge, tend and befriend, and growth.

Physiologically, your heart races during stressful situations. But there is less inflammation of the blood vessels and a different ratio of stress hormones when you have a “challenge” response compared to a “threat” one. With a “threat” response, there is a beating heart, sweaty palms, churning stomach, and impulse to flee—essentially, the feeling you are about to get eaten by a tiger. This can lead to more negative outcomes, like heart attacks and premature death.

Good stress, by contrast, tends to trigger the “challenge” response, which prompts us to step up, focus, and execute. This is what helps people achieve top performance in everything from performing brain surgery to taking a math exam. “It’s the kind of stress response you have in situations where you need to rise to a challenge—and, importantly, you feel like you can do it,” she described it on Goop. “Not necessarily succeed or fix everything that’s wrong, but a basic confidence that you aren’t going to fall apart under the pressure.”

Another type of stress response is “tend and befriend,” which features your body releasing a lot of oxytocin, the same hormone women release when they have a baby (sometimes referred to as the “cuddle” hormone). This primes us to connect with others. Not surprisingly, those who help others, even if they experience stress associated with that, show fewer negative health outcomes as a result. Oxytocin may play a role.

The third kind of stress response is a “growth” response, according to McGonigal. It’s from an emerging body of research that shows maybe we stress not because we need to survive but because it primes us to learn. As she told Goop:

“If you think stress is to help you run away from a tiger, of course that’s not a helpful way to respond to life. But if you understand that what you experience as stress is the biological mechanism by which you are going to learn and grow and develop your strength, now that’s a totally different way to understand why your heart is pounding, or why you’re having trouble falling asleep at night because you’re thinking about something stressful that happened.”

Research by Alison Brooks at Harvard Business School shows that people who reframed their performance anxiety as “excitement” performed better than those who tried instead to “calm down.” “Compared with those who attempt to calm down, individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement feel more excited and perform better,” her study concluded.

Theory versus practice

Denise Pope, a professor at Stanford and founder of Challenge Success, which helps kids redefine success away from just grades and college admissions, agrees that we need to arm kids with positive coping strategies for stress.

But she says a big challenge to reframing stress is that many kids worry about the wrong things. “What if they care too much about the wrong thing for the wrong reason?” she asks. The main reason kids tell her they are stressed? Grades, test scores, and not learning material in school. Kids who are stressed feel they don’t have the resources they need to rise to the challenge, putting their stress is squarely in the harmful “threat” category.

McGonigal and Pope agree that one of the most toxic elements of school-related stress is the belief that there is one path, you have to be on it, and it’s not okay to struggle along the way. She says her approach is not simply if you tell yourself everything will be okay, but recognizing that not all stress is toxic. In other words, “don’t be stressed” and “get more sleep”—popular parental advice—may not cut it.

Knowing there are different kinds of stress and that all kinds aren’t bad gives us options. As Dan Schwartz, dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of education, said: “Stress is an engine and my head is the steering wheel.”

You choose which way to go with it.