Peggy’s Read – The Upside of Stress

I read 2-3 books at the same time: One is for chilling out (usually a mystery), one is for the book group I’ve belonged to for years and one is because I love science.

My latest read, by Kelly McGonigal, PhD, “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to get Good at it”, was enlightening.

McGonigal was interested in a longitudinal (1998- 2016) study of 30,0000 adults, showing that high levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43% BUT ONLY if the person believed stress was harmful. (PA)

Those with high stress levels who did not believe it was harmful to their health had the lowest risk of death, lower than those who had little stress.

Popular opinion has been to avoid stress because it’s harmful.  This book made me rethink avoiding stressful situations and reframing stress as a challenge and help build resources and confidence.

Stress? Or a challenge? 

Here’s some of the interesting research and information from The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to get Good at it”:

Simply watching a” stress is enhancing” video to change someone’s mindset made a difference in the participants hormones that are produce during stress: cortisol and DHEA. The ratio of the two, called the growth index, determines the effects of stress. Higher levels of DHEA help people thrive under stress, and be resilience when stress is very high.
The researchers followed over time two groups:  a mindset change group that watched videos of the positive effects of stress and examples of thriving under stress and a control group that didn’t see the videos.  The group that was exposed to the positive effects of stress:

  • Continued to see stress in a more positive way.
  • Their depression and anxiety was reduced
  • Had fewer health problems
  • Were more focused and more productive.
  • These brief trainings resulted in lasting change.

There was no change in the control group.

Maybe non-life threatening stress should be called

the “challenge response”? 

Stress? Or meaningful activity-or both?

Some positive aspects of stress the book details:

  • The most common response to acute (as opposed to chronic) stress in people is growth and resilience.
  • Fight or flight not only gives you a bodily response to stress but can increase motivation for change.
  • Experience with stress when it’s not life-threatening can increase resilience. This response increases energy and focus.  It releases higher DHEA, raising the growth index. Artists and athletes show this when engaged in skill.
  • Oxytocin improves empathy and decrease fear, and increases social connections.
  • DHEA and nerve growth factor increases neuroplasticity to help you learn from stressful events.
    Cortisol and oxytocin help decrease inflammatory response and help recovery

Studies show stressed people are happier, maybe because they are engaged in meaningful things… jobs, raising kids, and  other projects. A full, busy life is full of stress.

Sometimes it is good to try to cam down, but other times it is better to say “I’m excited” when anxious. Cortisol and adrenaline actually improve performance during test taking,  Athletes say they are excited (rather than stressed) before a game which helps focus and determination to win.

When I think back to times I learned, changed and grew the most, high stress was ever present.  It was a fascinating read and while I still don’t relish most stressful situations I learned stress is ever present and whether I focus on the positive or negative aspects my brain, body and life are all impacted in critical ways.



Kelly McGonigal, PhD, “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to get Good at it”

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