Can stress be good for you?

Kelly McGonigal
Updated 12 December 2016
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Can stress be good for you?

I was immediately drawn to the title of this book: How could one not want to learn how stress can be good, when everything you read says stress is bad, and that reducing it makes you healthier and happier?
Right from the beginning, the author Kelly McGonigal tells us: “Focusing on the upside of stress transforms how you experience it physically and emotionally. It changes how you cope with the challenges in your life. I wrote this book with that specific purpose in mind: To help you discover your own strength, courage, and, compassion. Seeing the upside of stress is ... about deciding whether stress is either all good or all bad. It is about how choosing to see the good in stress can help you meet the challenges in your life.” 
McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, mentions some interesting research on stress done by her colleague Alia Crum. Her work shows that by changing how you think about an experience, you can change what happens in your body. To prove her point, Crum recruited housekeepers at seven hotels across the United States for a study of how beliefs affect health and weight. Crum designed a poster that described how housekeeping qualified as exercise. She told the housekeepers at four of the seven hotels that they should expect to see the health benefits of their physical activity. The housekeepers at the other three hotels were told how important physical exercise is for our health but they were not told that their work qualified as exercise.
Several weeks later, Crum found out that the housekeepers who knew that their work qualified as exercise had lost weight and body fat, and they even liked their work more. On the other hand, the housekeepers in the second group showed no improvement.
This experience clearly shows that “the housekeepers’ perception of their work as healthy exercise transformed its effects on their bodies. In other words, the effect you expect is the effect you get”. Having a positive view of aging, for example, adds an average of eight years to one’s life and helps you recover more quickly from a heart attack. Crum’s research proves that people who believe that stress is positive are less depressed and more satisfied with their lives than those who believe that stress is harmful. They have also more energy and fewer health problems.
Stress gives you energy to help you face whatever challenges lie ahead. There are countless news reports that show how a stress response can give you amazing physical strength, such as the story of two teenage girls from the United States who lifted a three-thousand-pound tractor off their father who was trapped underneath.
The energy you get not only helps your body but it also fires up your brain. Adrenaline wakes up your senses and the brain processes what you perceive more quickly. You also get a motivational boost from a cocktail of endorphins, adrenaline, testosterone, and dopamine, which provide a flood of feel-good chemicals which increase your sense of confidence and power.
Artists, athletes, surgeons and musicians experience this kind of stress response when they are engaged in their craft or their work.
“The stress response gives them access to their mental and physical resources, and the result is increased confidence, enhanced concentration, and peak performance,” writes McGonigal.
Interestingly enough, the Gallup World Poll conducted research which showed that the higher a nation’s stress index, the higher its well-being. In other words, although most people view stress as harmful, higher levels of stress seem to go along with things we want such as love, health and satisfaction with our lives.
“It turns out that a meaningful life is also a stressful life ... Although most people predict they would be happier if they were less busy, the opposite turns out to be true. People are happier when they are busier, even when forced to take on more than they would choose. A dramatic decrease in busyness may explain why retirement can increase the risk of developing depression by 40 percent. A lack of meaningful stress may even be bad for your health,” writes McGonigal.
Still more interesting research was conducted by Salvatore Maddi, a psychologist at the University of Chicago. He studied the long-term impact of stress on employees at the Illinois Bell Telephone Company. In the course of this study, Congress passed the Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act. Consequently, Bell Telephone laid off half of its workforce and those who remained were left facing uncertainty, changing roles and increased demands.
Some employees did not stand up to the pressure while others thrived, finding a new sense of purpose and enhanced well-being.
The people who thrived under stress thought about stress differently. They saw it as a normal aspect of life and as an opportunity to grow. Choosing to view anxiety as excitement, energy or motivation can help you perform to your full potential. When you are anxious before a big event such as a speech, a competition, or an exam, you should not worry about forcing yourself to relax. The ideal stress response is one that gives you energy, helps you focus, and encourages you to act. It gives you the motivation to face the challenge head-on, and the mental and physical resources to succeed.
“People think that feeling anxious while taking a standardized test will make them do poorly. However, recent research suggests that stress doesn’t hurt performance on these tests and can even help performance,” Jeremy Jamieson, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, was quoted as saying.
“People who feel anxious during a test might actually do better. This means that you shouldn’t feel concerned if you do feel anxious while taking today’s test. If you find yourself feeling anxious, simply remind yourself that your stress could be helping you do well.”
Incidentally, a program was set up to help medical professionals reduce burnout and cope with stress. It followed a radical strategy which encouraged the participants to bring the listening skills they developed during the program into their medical practice as well. The physicians go through a mindfulness technique which enhances their ability to pay attention and be more sensitive to other people. Rather than trying to reduce stress, the participants in the program were asked to embrace stress. As a result, at the end of the program, the physicians were less emotionally drained from their work and found more satisfaction in it.
“When stress is part of what makes something meaningful, shutting it out doesn’t get rid of the stress. Instead, taking the time to fully process and make meaning from what is stressful can transform it from something that drains you into something that sustains you,” McGonigal writes.
This book is based on the Science of Stress course the author teaches at Stanford University. It makes use of the most cutting-edge research in psychology and neuroscience. The “Upside of Stress” is a practical guide to getting better at living with stress. It helps you use the energy of stress without burning out. It shows you that embracing stress can make you feel more empowered in the face of challenges.

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Cat filter appears during Pakistani official’s live-stream briefing

Updated 29 min 44 sec ago
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Cat filter appears during Pakistani official’s live-stream briefing

  • Social media was quick to pounce on the image
  • Politician's team says actions have been taken to prevent “such an incident” in the future

PESHAWAR: It was a mistake that had some people in Pakistan scratching their whiskers.
A regional minister was giving a briefing that was live-streamed on social media last week when viewers noticed officials appeared as cats. Someone had left a cat filter on.
Social media was quick to pounce on the image.
In a statement posted on Twitter, the ruling party’s social media team wrote after investigating it determined “human error” by a hard working volunteer caused the mistake. The team said the cat filter was removed “within a few minutes.”
The team says actions have been taken to prevent “such an incident” in the future.