Book Review: The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal

This month I am focusing on debunking myths relating to mindfulness, compassion, and mental health. After all my years of meditation, I still find myself holding onto a few myths every now and then. One of those myths is that stress is bad for you.

As a lawyer, I have been informally trained to know that stress is a scary thing. The lawyer mental health crisis tells me I have to “manage” my stress. Family, friends, and doctors will tell me to “limit” my stress. And even in my training to become a meditation, yoga, and compassion teacher, I learned that stress can impede us physically and mentally.

But, then I came upon a book by Kelly McGonigal with a title that proclaims that stress is good for me. Her book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It seemed to fly in the face of everything I thought I knew. The thing is, though, that I adore Kelly McGonigal’s work.

She explains scientific concepts in a simple and engaging way that shows she really understands them. She does this so well that, in turn, I feel like I really understand the concepts too. I thoroughly enjoyed The Willpower Instinct and The Joy of Movement and, despite it being only in audio form, learned a ton from her course on compassion.

So, even though the title made me skeptical, I decided to give The Upside of Stress a try. Guess what? It totally changed my mind. And when I say “changed” I don’t mean that it made me suddenly welcome and enjoy all the stress in my life. Instead, it refined my understanding of what stress meant and how it actually worked.

Most of us know the “fight/flight/freeze” reaction as the stress response, as if it was the only response to stress. In Upside, however, McGonigal explains that this is only one possible response to stress and it usually occurs in dire threat situations. This is when stress can harm us physically, impede our performance, and even lead to bad behavior and aggression.

On the other hand, humans can respond to stress in other ways, including the “tend and befriend” or “challenge” responses. In other words, we can learn to care for and forge connections to deal with stress or see a stressful situation as a challenge that can present opportunities. When we respond to stress in these ways, research shows that it can improve performance, cause us to behave more ethically and collaboratively, and create courage, motivation, and energy.

Now, of course, the skeptics out there are likely to wonder why we hear so many dire warnings about stress if it is good for us. McGonigal acknowledges that stress can be bad, even devastating for some of us, but she explains that the popular discourse of stress is often misleading.

One thing that is often left out of these discussions is that our reactions to and mindset about stress can determine how it affects us. That is why so much of The Upside of Stress is devoted to changing the audience’s mind about stress, because just acknowledging that stress can have an upside is the first step to healthy stress management.

When I read this part of the book, I was ever more surprised because I realized I already knew it or had at least experienced it. I had not officially accepted the idea that stress could be good for me, but I had learned through meditation to respond to stress differently.

Rather than ignore, evade, or fight stress, I had learned to regard it as a normal part of life, to accept it as human, and to treat it with care. In other words, meditation had helped me more frequently invoke a challenge or tend-and-befriend response to stress. As McGonigal argues, it didn’t make the stress go away but it made it easier to bear.

If, like most lawyers, you want some help managing stress, consider checking out The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal. If the only thing it does is change your mind about stress, that alone could be enough to change your life for the better.

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