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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.

I just had an experience that I’d forgotten I could have.  I thought I was above this kind of thing.  My ego just barreled through and knocked me out cold.  Then it did a little dance over my body.

Since reading Mindset I’ve been operating under the basic premises therein that a growth mindset allows you to improve while a fixed mindset acts as a roadblock to your improvement.  I’ve been all about it, telling everyone to read the book, having my students read sections.  I’m Carol Dweck’s biggest cheerleader.  Her premise is not difficult to grasp, but as I’m discovering, it can be a difficult concept to adopt as part of your life on a daily basis.

As part of developing my own growth mindset I signed up for a math class through EdX.  I wanted to model lifelong learning for my students, and it’s a subject I could use a refresher on.  The class is a statistics course through UC Berkeley.  The basic format is do some reading, watch a lecture, some practice problems, and then do a problem set.  It just started and I was feeling  (over)confident that this would be a simple brush-up and a good way to remind myself of the stats classes I took in high school and as an undergrad.  The first problem set and lecture proved to be pretty straightforward, introducing types of variables, basics about percentiles, and how to arrange data so that it makes some sense.  I skimmed the reading, skipped parts of the video lecture, and did fine on the first problem set.  Ding!  Round one goes to the fixed mindset approach.

With my hubris firmly in place I figured why not get a jump on the next assignment, check the sample problems, and jump straight into the problem set.  The second problem set checked my ego.  Hard.  Did I go back to the reading and lecture before moving through the rest of the problem set?  Nope.  I just told myself “that was the first question, you’ve got this, just keep going.  You’ll be fine.”

By the time I got 70% of the way through the problem set (with limited success, thank you instant online feedback) it hit me: “I’m rationalizing my lack of understanding.”  I’m telling myself this class doesn’t matter.  Telling myself there’s no grade attached.  I’m not a statistician.  I don’t really need this.  I can just stop if I don’t like it.  I’ll go do something I care about like reading a book.  All of my emotional baggage related to math classes came back at me like a sucker punch to the throat.  My heart rate and breathing were elevated and I had to stand up and walk away from the computer in order to calm down.  Round two:  technical knockout due to forfeit.

Damn.  Talk about a fixed mindset in action.  Even ten minutes after putting the problem set on hold I was telling myself it was because I didn’t care; that’s why I didn’t do well, not that I didn’t know the math.  I was actively preserving my ego.

I could stop.  It would be easy to stop.  Easy to go back to fighting the fights that are inside my comfort zone.  There is no grade here and I’ve made no financial commitment.  This statistics course it not attached to a degree.  If I give up though I give up on myself.

This experience puts me back on the same footing as my students.  They experience this regularly with their classes and it serves as a healthy reminder to me to be understanding of their reluctance, frustration, and the difficulties they encounter.  I’ve read books like Outliers and Mindset.  I’ve adopted the theory and I still get blindsided by my ego and the ease of a fixed mindset.  My students haven’t read these pieces and so modeling and teaching a growth mindset is even more important.  I need to be able to provide support and context when they are unable to do it for themselves.

Well:  Time for a rematch.  I’m ready to get back in the ring and get the KO on my Greatest Obstacle.  I need to (and will) go back to the reading and the lecture.  I will finish that second problem set, and for the third problem set I’ll come from a place of humility and do the process from the proper state of mind.  The ability to go back and fix problems is what sets the growth mindset apart from the fixed mindset, the willingness to pick yourself back up and try again.  Watch out ego:  I’m coming to get you.