The Upside of Stress

By Donald R. Officer

Seeing the upside of stress is not about deciding whether stress is either all good or all bad. It’s about how choosing to see the good in stress can help you meet the challenges in your life.

Kelly McGonigal

The Upside of Stress

Kelly McGonigal, author of The Upside of Stress: Why stress is good for you and how to get good at it, is a Stanford professor who looks at stress differently. Decades ago Hans Selye described stress as a proven bio-response with physiological indicators. Our hard-wired choice was “fight or flight” with serious physical and mental health risks. Not so fast, says McGonigal.

News flash: Stress is good for you! How could this be? Selye separated types of stimuli as his research became more discerning. Stress from negative inputs yields “distress.” Stress from happy events, something positive he called “eustress.” This model stood until studies showed even wonderful events like the birth of a child or a promotion also registered high on the nasty distress scale. Stress, it seemed, was stress. Bummer.

Then the pioneering work of Alia Crum helped McGonigal seek not various types of stress so much as different ways of thinking about it. Researcher Crum recorded positive physiological change when subjects were primed in her lab to see stress as positively stimulating. No shifts occurred when preparation was negative or nonexistent. Crum next field-tested her hypothesis selecting a Wall Street firm, post 2008. She enlisted both male and female bankers struggling to do more with less for less in a hostile climate. Once again, bias towards the darker view of stress reversed when people were consistently shown something brighter.

The McGonigal account is science-based, but laced with great stories. She describes a dedicated polar distance swimmer raising funds for climate research by stroking through polar oceans. His positive stress mindset keeps him going in conditions that would kill a normal person in three minutes! Positive stress is a gift to personal engagement and likewise grateful leadership.

What could provide a more powerful mindset shift for your anxious colleagues than showing them authentic acknowledgement and genuine gratitude? It turns out a positive mindset towards stress, like gratitude itself, is contagious.

What role does gratitude play in your life? The Gratitude Connection weekly and International Institute of Learning Senior Vice-President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment, will help you see the possibilities.

This article is from the monthly column The Gratitude Connection contributed by Positive Psychology expert/thought leader Donald R. Officer, author of the Positive Psychology News Daily article on Grateful Leadership.

Donald Officer, MA ’89, is a strategic thinking practitioner who melds problem solving research models to help clients anticipate unexpected scenarios and opportunities while pursuing what is most meaningful to them. In addition to coaching, facilitation, and consulting Don blogs at The Intention Coach, where he welcomes comments. He is a certified facilitator and a member of the International Coach Federation and the Canadian Positive Psychology Association. Donald’s articles can be found here.