“The stress response is more than a basic survival instinct. It is built into how humans operate, how we relate to one another, and how we navigate our place in the world. When you understand this, the stress response is no longer something to be feared.”
When you speak in public, do you get nervous beforehand or excited? McGonigal points out the physiological response is identical: the difference is purely in our mindset and how we interpret it. That’s why college athletes get excited before games but nervous before exams. Our mindset then induces a different response to the stress, which affects our psychological and physiological state: a fear response, which is what most of us think of with stress, or a challenge response, where our performance improves to meet the challenge.
The point is that how we think about stress matters. If we think it’s bad, it will be. Shifting our mindset, though, is often enough to change stress from bad to good. In 2008, for example, telling bankers being stressed was good for them reduced anxiety and health problems and increased productivity and collaboration.
McGonigal acknowledges the research that shows anxiety or worry is bad. She certainly isn’t suggesting that struggling to find enough to eat is somehow an advantage. She points out, however, that much of that research is done with stressors that are paramount to torture: rats who get electric shocks, for example. Much of what we encounter in life, though unpleasant, is not clearly comparable. Instead, the evidence on mild stress is mixed; monkeys separated from their mothers for a day actually showed more curiosity and self-control later on.
The evidence is mixed, and it may well depend on the person. The next time you feel stressed, though, remind yourself it isn’t all bad, and can even be good. It can’t hurt, and it might help!