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Kelly McGonigal: Can We Reframe The Way We Think About Stress?

Aug 2, 2019
Originally published on August 5, 2019 9:11 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode How To Be Better.

About Kelly McGonigal TED Talk

Stress is an unpleasant emotion — but does it have an upside? Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal says adjusting the way you think about stress can actually change the way your body responds to it.

About Kelly McGonigal

Kelly McGonigal is an author, psychologist, and educator. She holds positions in both the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the School of Medicine, where she develops studies that help people become happier and healthier.

She has written several books, including The Upside of Stress and The Joy of Movement.

She received a BA in Psychology and a BS in Mass Communication from Boston University and her PhD from Stanford University.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

On the show today, ideas about how to be better, better about things like stress.

Do you know what really stresses me out?

KELLY MCGONIGAL: Tell me.

RAZ: It's reading studies about how stress takes decades of your life.

MCGONIGAL: (Laughter).

RAZ: Like, that stresses me out more.

MCGONIGAL: Yeah. You know, I used to love reading studies like that. And every time a study like that came out, I'd be like, yes, more fodder for my message that stress kills.

RAZ: This is Kelly McGonigal. She's a research psychologist at Stanford University.

MCGONIGAL: And I will tell you, you know, I came across a newly published study. And from the title of the study, I thought it was going to be another one of those studies that says, yes, stress kills you, another thing I can tell people to motivate them to reduce or avoid stress. And as I read that study, my mind was blown.

RAZ: Her mind was blown because that study said that stress isn't necessarily a bad thing. But believing that stress is bad, that is the actual problem.

MCGONIGAL: And that's a very different kind of messaging than the scare tactics that our field sometimes takes. So that was a stressful moment.

RAZ: And, of course, it was stressful because Kelly knew there was a connection between stress and health. But that study made her re-evaluate her entire perspective because maybe stress wasn't a bug, but a feature, something we can actually harness just by changing the way we think about it.

I mean, you as a researcher, somebody who has researched stress, it's not like you don't experience it. You experience it...

MCGONIGAL: All the time.

RAZ: All the time? Like, in this interview, like, right now, are you experiencing it?

MCGONIGAL: Yes.

RAZ: Can you describe, like, how you're feeling right now, like, your symptoms?

MCGONIGAL: Well, I wouldn't describe them as symptoms.

RAZ: (Laughter).

MCGONIGAL: I would describe them as changes that are taking place in my brain and body to help me rise to a moment that matters. So I am feeling alert. I'm feeling a little bit raw and vulnerable, as if I'm more open to the world around me. And I can sense my heart beating. It's not racing. But I definitely feel - I sense this type of stress as a surge of energy that is encouraging me to engage.

RAZ: For most people, those are un-fun feelings. Like, most of us don't like that feeling.

MCGONIGAL: Well, it depends on the context. People like it when they're falling in love. They like it if they're on a roller coaster. But the feelings themselves actually can be quite positive depending on the context and how you think about them.

RAZ: Kelly McGonigal picks up her idea from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MCGONIGAL: Can changing how you think about stress make you healthier? And here, the science says yes. When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body's response to stress. Your heart might be pounding. You might be breathing faster, maybe breaking out into a sweat. And normally, we interpret these physical changes as anxiety or signs that we aren't coping very well with the pressure.

But what if you view them instead as signs that your body was energized, was preparing you to meet this challenge? That pounding heart is preparing you for action. If you're breathing faster, it's no problem. It's getting more oxygen to your brain.

Now, that is exactly what participants were told in a study conducted at Harvard University. They were taught to rethink their stress response as helpful. And participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance - well, they were less stressed out, less anxious, more confident. But the most fascinating finding to me was how their physical stress response changed.

Now, in a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up, and your blood vessels constrict. And this is one of the reasons that chronic stress is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease. It's not really healthy to be in this state all the time. But in the study when participants viewed their stress response as helpful, their heart was still pounding, but it actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy.

And this is really what the new science of stress reveals - that how you think about stress matters. So my goal as a health psychologist has changed. I no longer want to get rid of your stress. I want to make you better at stress.

We actually know from the research that having more anxiety - you're probably going to perform better than people who have no anxiety. We know that that adrenaline you're feeling that's causing your heart to pound that's maybe - makes you feel like you're a little bit constricted - maybe you're sweating. Maybe you're breathing faster. But that is literally energy being made available to you. You basically see a response that is your body going into peak performance mode - almost a flow state.

And often, the only thing that's required to make that shift is just to stop fighting it, to recognize that this is a human experience to get this flood of energy. And it doesn't always feel great. But if you didn't have it, you would not do your best. And one of the simplest beliefs or thoughts that allows people to have this kind of positive challenge response is simply, I can handle this. I can handle this. I might not be able to control it, but I can handle this.

RAZ: Yeah. So I mean, it does sound like it is possible to kind of tame stress, I guess.

MCGONIGAL: I think it's possible to transform stress when our default response to stress is harmful. And I think - you know, that's how I think about, also, the stressful circumstances as well. You can't always control what happens in life and what's going on in the world, just like you can't always control your heart rate. You can't always control the hormones that are flooding your body or the neurotransmitters that are coursing through your brain. But you can surrender to the reality of that.

And then ask yourself, in this moment, what's something I can do that shifts what's happening in a more positive direction? We're going to take this as the starting point. I'm stressed. My heart is pounding. I'm feeling lonely. I'm feeling confused. I'm feeling overwhelmed. What's something I can do in this moment that is going to accept that, figure out what it is that matters most and then use some of this energy, use some of this biochemistry to make choices or take actions that are consistent with what matters most?

RAZ: You know, whenever I have to, like, present in front of a big group of people, you know, I get, you know, a little bit nervous. And I'm just - I don't want to talk to people beforehand. And I just want to kind of be by myself. And I'm just...

MCGONIGAL: Oh. Yes.

RAZ: You know, right? Like, I just don't want to - you know what I mean?

MCGONIGAL: I do know what you mean. You know, what's really interesting to me is you said that you didn't want to talk to the people around you. And, you know, there's a response that your brain and body can have in moments of stress that encourages you to connect with others and gives you all the neurochemistry you need to do that and to feel good about it that really nudges you in that direction of connection. And then we also have these stress responses that can feel more like we're shutting down or more like we have to defend ourselves, more like we need to escape this reality and get out of here.

And they're both totally natural instincts. But anything that you can do in a moment where - if you're going to choose your own stress response, this is a moment to find that part of you that knows how to do that under stress and to not make it all about yourself, but to look around you and see who else is in this moment with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MCGONIGAL: I want to tell you about one of the most underappreciated aspects of the stress response. And the idea is this. Stress makes you social. To understand this side of stress, we need to talk about a hormone - oxytocin. And I know. Oxytocin has already gotten as much hype as a hormone can get. It even has its own cute nickname - the cuddle hormone - because it's released when you hug someone. It primes you to do things that strengthen close relationships.

But here's what most people don't understand about oxytocin. It's a stress hormone. Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out as part of the stress response. It's as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other.

OK, so how is knowing this side of stress going to make you healthier? Well, oxytocin doesn't only act on your brain. It also acts on your body. Oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage. This stress hormone strengthens your heart. And the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support. Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.

RAZ: OK. So this is not easy, right? Like, this is not, like, flipping a light switch because sometimes it's hard to sort of push yourself to reach out to other people, especially when you're feeling stressed - right? - and your default reaction is to kind of close up, right?

MCGONIGAL: Yes. What I've learned from the research on stress is that we all have these sort of stress habits. And sort of left unchecked, we might respond to every stressful moment with our most comfortable and habitual stress response. And there are these other stress responses we may need to more actively cultivate. So for example, I'm the kind of person who likes to learn from stressful experiences, but I can get very paralyzed by fear and anxiety. And I've had to practice courage as a response to stress.

Now, I'm the kind of person who, for a long time, if something was making me scared, I would look for the way to avoid it. I often talk about my fear of flying as an example of that - where I refused to fly for years because I just didn't want to feel it. I didn't want to feel the fear. And I had to cultivate courage as a response to stress, which for me, meant choosing to view doing something as being in service of something higher than myself.

And our ability to sort of see the meaning in the things that are causing us stress by taking a bigger-than-self perspective is another thing that is, I think, profoundly human. And it's one of the ways that I choose to deal with stress - is to say I'm - I'll take it. Let me experience this fear right now because I have a sense that this is playing a part of a bigger story, and that is a story that is a human story of all of us having to deal with our fears. And my willingness to do so, in ways that I may not even always know, might be helping others do so as well.

RAZ: So I mean, it seems like in some ways, stress is, like, a call to action.

MCGONIGAL: Yeah.

RAZ: But having read through all this research - like, do you feel like we all have similar levels of stress and we just deal with it differently, or are there people who are just not really affected?

MCGONIGAL: This is a yes and kind of situation. There are a lot of things that seem to be rooted in our genetic temperament that influence how we respond to stress, in addition to life experiences. But if you're talking that sort of basic personality trait - and that trait isn't so much whether you are negatively affected by stress. It's whether you are sensitive to learning from experiences and being changed by experiences. And some people seem to be genetically primed to be strongly influenced by important experiences, most of which people define as stressful.

So it's not so much that some people are good at stress and some people are bad at stress. Some people seem to be more sensitive to this biological mechanism we have to learn from experience. I'm OK dealing with some of those side effects, like being anxious a lot of the time or maybe not being able to sleep at night 'cause I'm trying to replay the most stressful experience and figure out what I can learn from it. I'm OK with that because I also believe it's part of what makes human beings able to learn and grow and also have empathy for others. There's something so interesting about how fundamental stress is to who we are as humans, to how we learn and grow and also to how we connect with others. So I'll take it.

RAZ: That's Kelly McGonigal. She's a health psychologist and the author of the book "The Upside Of Stress." You can see her full talk at TED.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA GET BETTER")

BLEACHERS: (Singing) Hey, I want to get better. I didn't know I was lonely till I saw your face. I want to get better, better, better, better. I want to get better. I didn't know I was broken till I wanted to change. I want to get better, better, better, better. I want to get better.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on how to be better this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED talks, check out TED.com or the TED app.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye and J.C. Howard, with help from Daniel Shukin and Brent Baughman. Our intern is Emmanuel Johnson. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms and Anna Phelan.

If you want to let us know what you think about the show, please go to Apple Podcasts and write a review. You can also write to us directly at tedradiohour@npr.org, and you can tweet us - it's @TEDRadioHour.

I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.