Looking to learn how to thrive under pressure? Kelly McGonigal has your answers.
She’s made a career with the power of psychology, using it to help people improve their mental health and overall wellbeing. Her insights have reached all sorts of audiences; her first two books, The Willpower Instinctand The Upside of Stress, are bestsellers with tens of thousands of copies sold worldwide. Kelly’s expertise helped form Stanford’s innovative Compassion Cultivation Training program that’s now taught around the world. You might also know her from her TED talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” which is currently one of the most viewed of all time.
As if that wasn’t a long enough list of accomplishments, Kelly’s most recent book, The Joy of Movement, has reached all-star status within its domain. She sat down with me to discuss it all – from stress and its nuances to the science-backed ways of beating it through exercise – in this podcast.
What Is Stress?
We sure know what stress feels like – a doomy, rampant, pressured state of mind where simply existing can be too much to handle. People experience it as a result of their nine-to-five, family, social connections, romantic life, or like in the case of many creators, pursuit of success.
But really, what is stress, and what does it mean?
On a basic level, stress is a human reaction to change. It’s the instinctive feeling the body gets when something important is out of its control, whether that be an emotional, psychological or physical aggressor.
Stress has a reputation for disrupting our lives in a negative way. People often feel the pressure, panic, and spiral into a state of worry and crisis. Even the mere thought of being stressed can make us stressed – fear of its bad effects alone are enough to set ourselves up for disaster.
It turns out that there’s an actual name for this; the stress mindset effect. Kelly explains that it’s a common tendency among those who worry regularly. Research she’s read and been involved in for over a decade has found a direct connection between obsession over the harmful effects of stress and exacerbated symptoms.
A self-realizing problem, she points out that the stress mindset effect is unproductive. Believe it or not, stress can actually have good elements to it, and by solely focusing on the negative, we’re making it harder for ourselves to capitalize upon the positive.
Stress: The Good, The Bad, and The Nuanced
While no one likes to go through the feelings of pressure often associated with stress, Kelly tells me that it’s something we can use to our advantage.
It’s clear that stress is an instinctive human reaction, something we likely developed to survive through the ages. A lot of people have heard the ‘fight or flight’ narrative used to describe this concept, but Kelly explains that there’s a much larger, more complex repertoire to it.
One is what she refers to as the ‘challenge response’, which basically means raising all defenses in the face of an oncoming obstacle. It involves many of the same hormones and instincts behind bravery.
This type of reaction to stress has the power to bring us out of situations better than we went in. Being able to hone the ability of rising to challenges and ‘becoming the hero in your own story’ makes it easier to take control of fraught situations.
Another type of stress response, which Kelly calls the ‘social stress response’, can be healthy when managed in the right way. It provokes us to seek out support from others and connect with people as a means of coping. This, she says, can be incredibly beneficial for emotional resilience.
Beating Stress Through Exercise
Kelly is a firm believer in the power of movement and its ability to regulate both the body and mind. This is especially true when it comes to stress, or emotional struggles in general. Its impacts on elements of physical state – like heart rate, breathing and sweating – are incredibly similar to natural stress responses. She uses one of her favorite high intensity workouts, Grit, as an example. It gets her heartrate up higher than any other exercise regimen she’s ever done. By the end, it feels like her heart is pounding out of her ribcage and that her breathing has become completely involuntary.
Symptoms of panic? Sheer terror? While Kelly says those are the only other circumstances that have caused her to feel them, she embraces that. Grit, like other forms of movement, can empower us to feel, accept and desensitize the reality of stress and make it easier to cope when it sets in.
By pushing the body and mind towards a new level of exertion, Kelly believes that exercise can be used as a great way to practice dealing with stress. We can learn to recognize the feelings and sensations that it causes us, as well as how to take control over them without letting it take control of us.
Whether it’s Grit, yoga or the occasional jog, Kelly stresses that the point is to find an exercise that works for you, and to make sure it’s something your body and mind actually enjoy. That way, the stress mindset effect doesn’t have to factor into the equation.
The gist? Stress isn’t inherently bad – having a good understanding of our bodies, its various responses, and how to effectively manage them can equip us to make the most out of life. And it’s never too late to start. With the right tools – and insight from experts like Kelly – we can all learn how to deal with it in more productive and positive ways.
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