Book Review: The Upside of Stress

Kelly McGonigal is back with her second book of accessible psychology The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. Much like her previous book, The Willpower Instinct, McGonigal processes a mountain of psychological research and presents it all in a readily accessible, practical format full of reflective prompts and mindset interventions. It worked last time with willpower and it works again with stress.

UpsideStessThe claim is bold: stress isn’t bad for you, it’s good for you. It’s a nice message, and fairly easy to comprehend; we learn from adversity and what doesn’t kill us makes is stronger, but it also deliberately flies in the face of our common perception of stress as dangerous and harmful. SO what’s the deal? Is stress good or bad?

Well, McGonigal’s claim is that it depends on your mindset and how you perceive stressful stimuli in your life. You can get McGonigal’s basic premise through her TED talk “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” It’s a great introduction to the concept, but the book is required for any kind of depth. The TED Talk alone landed me in the category “of that sounds great, but come on… really? What about all this research about the dangers of stress?” Throughout the book, however, McGonigal continually builds up her claim with a veritable mountain of research. The core text of the book is 230 pages and there are an additional forty pages of end notes. Each claim is thoroughly supported through research, and it remains accessible and straightforward throughout as a skillful combination of literature review and personal stories.

“Is this real, or just happening inside my head?”
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” 

― J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The primary claim in The Upside of Stress is essentially the same as Dumbledore’s above: what goes on in our head is just as real as that which goes on outside our head, or in the context of The Upside of Stress, by changing our relationship to something that is stressful we can reduce the negative impacts of that stressful event or task. Essentially, if you believe stress to be beneficial to you then a stressful component of our lives can change from being harmful to helpful. This is because, according to McGonigal, we experience stress when our values are in conflict. For example at work I may feel a conflict between responding to email thoughtfully and responding quickly to the volume of email that I receive. That clash of values creates stress. If I did not care about responding to my email, the volume of email I receive would not impact me at all. It would just exist. The stressful experience is due to my desire to communicate effectively.

If the theory works, by repositioning the work to be done as a representation of our values, I can bring out the positive components of stress to improve my daily reality. I won’t reduce the stress experience, nor will I reduce the necessary work, but I well feel differently about the stress involved, and therefore the stress will impact me more positively. It’s disarmingly simple. It also works.

At work I have a particularly mindless data entry task in which I have to record participation in an activity for each teacher in our district. There’s a paper form and the data entry is tedious. It’s classic, and unnecessary bureaucracy that would have been completely avoidable with a bit more planning. I’ve been frustrated that this data entry is taking away from what I view as my “real work” of planning and facilitating professional learning. From reading McGonigal’s book I tried to reframe the data entry work, not as a burden on my workload, but instead as an example of how I can help teachers receive additional pay for professional learning; something I believe in strongly. This shift in mindset, along with deliberately scheduling times to do the data entry, has completely changed my relationship to the work. No longer do I let the data entry tasks pile up and wear down my patience; continually distracting me from other tasks. Instead, I can be comfortable with a stack of forms to enter because I know I will get to them at the scheduled time, and in doing so I will help teachers receive additional compensation. The actual work and the volume of forms to enter have not changed, but my relationship to that work has changed dramatically. I don’t necessarily look forward to entering forms, but  I no longer dread it and it occupies substantially less of my attention while I am not actively performing that specific task.

In all honesty, this shift alone would make the book worth the cover price. I’m confident, though, that the book will continue to pay dividends in my life, much like The Willpower Instinct has. The Upside of Stress is a 240 page mindset intervention, and while it may be difficult to pinpoint precisely which parts of the book, or which reflection prompts have the most impact, I know that my relationship with stress is changing. I am intentionally looking for how a stressful reaction is related to my values. My relationship to my body’s physiological stress response is different as well. I am more likely now to consider an increased heart rate as a sign that my body is geared up to take on a challenging experience. This is incredibly empowering and it really does only take a change in my thought pattern. I don’t mean to imply that the shift is necessarily easy or quick though. Changing our mindset on anything is a challenge, and McGonigal herself admits that her mindset with regard to stress is still a work in progress despite the years spent working through the research.  The Upside of Stress is not a silver bullet to fixing your life. The book will not make you stress free, but it is a powerful boost on your journey toward a new, more positive, relationship to stresses in your life.

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