October 02, 2015

A stress-free yoga practitioner.

A stress-free yoga practitioner. Credit: Oleg Klementiev / Flickr Creative Commons

Stress causes heart attacks.

Stress is as bad as secondhand smoke.

Childhood stress leads to strokes later in life.

There’s a mountain of studies and statistics about how terrible stress is. Thinking about it all is enough to, well, stress someone out.

But what if stress wasn’t actually that terrible? Maybe, instead of going all downward dog to reduce anxiety, we should instead look at the positives.  Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal and George Mason professor Todd Kashdan argue that, in some instances, stress can be a good thing. At the very least, there are a few ways to make it work for you:

Describe your emotions

You’ve come home at the end of a long workweek. Your spouse, partner, or roommate poses the query: “How did work go?” If you’re anything like the writer of this blog post, you might tell your roommate, “Ugh, it was super stressful.” It makes sense – in our culture, work is thought of as stressful. But Kashdan says that you should dig a little deeper, and examine how you really feel.

“Describe your emotional life with more precision, and say, ‘I’ve been a little bit anxious, excited, curious, and confused as I’m working on this presentation.’ People that can describe their emotional world with more precision, they end up less likely to have experiences of anger with their romantic partner turn into hateful comments… and they’re more likely to enjoy spending time with their kids.”

McGonigal adds that “as soon as you start to pay attention to what you’re feeling, you increase activation in parts of the brain that give you more control and flexibility over your behavior and responses.”

Don’t just avoid or tolerate stress

Unless you’re doing yoga on a mountaintop at sunset with your two adorable rescue dogs, stress is probably an unavoidable fact of life. It might seem better to just tolerate the stress, to power through it.  Kashdan disagrees, he thinks it’s best to harness that stress: “When you’re stressed in the here and now, and you’re a little bit less than happy, you’re actually better at picking up details, better at detecting liars, and better at focusing, in terms of being creative and persuasive."

Think of Tom Brady before a big football game. The little bit of stress and nervousness he feels before the football match can help him perform. And it’s not just superstar athletes feeling anxiety before the Super Bowl, World Series, or Quidditch World Cup. McGonigal says that re-evaluating stress, harnessing it, can even help people with anxiety disorders. “The research suggests that they’re the most likely to be helped by this kind of rethinking of stress, resetting their minds about anxiety.”

Respond to stress in a positive way

Fight or flight. Kill the tiger with a spear or run away. McGonigal points out that for years, scientists have thought that stress only provoked the fight-or-flight response. That’s great -- if you’re fighting a saber-tooth tiger or running out of a burning building -- but not that helpful when you’re getting ready for an important marketing pitch.

“There’s a lot of evidence that you can have a stress response that makes you more caring, not more hostile. You can have a stress response that helps you grow, become stronger and smarter, not necessarily weaker and more exhausted. And we don’t totally know yet all of the determinants of why you have a stress response that helps you thrive while another person that has a stress response that really isn’t helpful,” she explains.

In short, stress is sometimes great and sometimes terrible. It’s all in the type of stress you’re being crushed under, and how you respond to it. And Kashdan thinks that the best way to respond isn’t necessarily to be happy and positive, it’s to be flexible:

“The person that’s able to use more strategies to get the best possible outcome in a situation, a person I’d describe as psychologically flexible, that quality far outweighs and is more powerful than being positive and optimistic.”

stress, yoga, Todd Kashdan, Kelly McGonigal, Body & Mind, higher ed

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