FIGHT OR FLIGHT

The trick to overcoming stress could be embracing it

Anxiety is a mental health epidemic in US, a condition that Americans will go to great lengths to mitigate—to the benefit of drug companies, beverage distributors, and a wide array of medical professionals. But the American response to stress and anxiety could be all wrong.

In her book The Upside of Stress, an offshoot of her popular 2013 TED talk, Kelly McGonigal argues that instead of avoiding stress we should accept it. “There’s really something important about giving up the fantasy of a stress-free life, one where it has your marriage, your kids, and your body in it—but you experience no major challenges,” McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, told Quartz.

McGonigal encourages people to embrace not just the “good” kind of stress that motivates us at work, but the really hard stuff too. She cites a study by the Department of Veterans Affairs that followed more than 1,000 adults over the course of a decade, and found that those who routinely avoided stress were more likely be become depressed over time. When you experience stress, it’s also a sign that you are likely pursuing a meaningful life. According to Gallup World Poll, nations with the highest levels of well-being also happen to experience the highest levels of stress. McGonigal writes:

“To understand this puzzling finding, the researchers looked at the relationship between stress and other emotions. On a day when a person felt a great deal of stress, that person was also more likely to have felt angry, depressed, sad, or worried. But feeling a great deal of stress was also associated with feeling more joy, love, and laughter. When it came to overall well-being, the happiest people in the poll weren’t the ones without stress. Instead, they were the people who were highly stressed but not depressed. These individuals were the most likely to view their lives as close to ideal. In contrast, the researchers reported that among individuals who appeared to be the most unhappy, experiencing high levels shame and anger and low levels of joy, there was a notable lack of stress. … I call this the stress paradox.”

She suggests viewing the physiological response not as a hindrance, but rather as affirmation that your body is preparing you to rise to a challenge. It’s a controversial position in a culture that has been inundated with messages about how stress can kill you.

“Your stress is defined by how it is you’re thinking about a situation and your ability to handle it,” says McGonigal, who used to stand on the other side of the issue, warning people of its harmful effects. She highlights an experiment led by Harvard Business School’s Alison Wood Brooks, who advised one group of people who were about to give a major presentation to tell themselves they were excited, and the other to calm down before getting on stage. Both groups experienced similar levels of anxiety, but the subset that focused on feeling energized reported feeling more confident during the presentation, and those in the audience judged them as performing better.

How we respond to stress elicits different physiological responses. For example, perceiving stress as useful often releases higher levels of DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), a neurosteroid that helps your brain learn from a stressful experience and bounce back better next time.

“You want high levels of DHEA,” says McGonigal. “Most people think of just two stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, which are good for you in the short term, but not chronically.” DHEA counters some of the effects of cortisol, speeds up wound repair, and enhances immune function.

Fight or flight responses are helpful in emergencies, but not in other scenarios like the workplace. The trick to escaping that state of being, she says, is telling your mind how to view a situation as a challenge rather than a threat. Disruptive events that spark temporary anxiety prepare us to respond better in the future—treating stress more like a muscle that can be strengthened rather than something to be avoided.

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